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Saturday, June 22, 2024
The Observer

'Fake news' is our fault

Fake news.

Two words that have seemingly been able to slip into the average Joe’s vocabulary in the past four years. However, pre-2016 election, the words were unbeknownst to the majority of the population. Most blame the appearance on the wondrous former president, who seemed to only be able to communicate in these two words like Groot from The Guardians of the Galaxy. Nonetheless, given the abundance of these two words in our conversations and tweets, you’d think we’d know their meaning. In a sense, we do. We know that it encompasses false stories being passed as legitimate journalism to sway elections or just the infamous bit of false gossip. However, we are also well aware that the term is a façade, made to discredit journalism opposing any individual — as well as one of the greatest threats to democracy, free speech and Western order.

Why then, given all the information we have supposedly known in our tiny meaty brains, are we still susceptive to the phenomenon of fake news? The answer lies in our emotions and ignorance.

Many of us believe we have a hold of the wild horses that are our emotions. Just like Plato, we’d like to think we are driven by reason, and emotions just add a layer of depth to our reality. However, truly our species comes closer to how Hume predicted: “a slave of the passions.” The reason just lies as a tool of understanding, while emotions drive this understanding. As a result, communication became a vehicle for emotion implicitly. This is clearly exampled with the “expressivism” of the 20th century, which argued that the human mind deceived itself to believe the piece of information as fact, while in actuality it was driven by emotions. Furthermore, the human mind has been wired to associate: If something feels wrong, it is bad all around. Taking this into consideration, the act of retweeting or sharing news posts online has a lot more depth than realized.

When we take the step to retweet or share, we become a “testimony,” endorsing the knowledge provided. However, most of us don’t even take the time to read the article, clicking share blindly. Research shows that around 60% of shared news post has not been read by the person sharing. So, we endorse it because of our first impression: the title. Human behavior has shown that the best indicator of what will be shared or not lies in strong moving emotions. This lies in the spectrum of cutesy feelings to moral outrage. Research indicates that stronger emotions increase the chances of a tweet being shared by 20%. However, consciously, we believe our reasoning is to transfer information, but mostly we aren’t trying to do that. If we were, wouldn’t we take the time of the day to read the article? When it comes to political news stories, our outrage is usually stimulated, leading to the spread of an equal feeling among social groups. Almost cult-like, some can say. In a sense, social media is a collection of cults, sharing their own outrage. And weirdly enough, it has worked due to the ignorance of many.

It has become common knowledge that the world holds too much information for the feeble brain of a human being. So, human judgment relies on the limited amount of stored information and external sources: our idea of what others think. Digital culture and its wealth of information have brought a new reliance on social information and influence. Researchers have branded the new phenomenon as an “infostorm,” which is “in the sense of a sudden and tempestuous flow of social information — and suggests an intriguing alternative to the narratives of human folly and unreason so often applied to fake new.”

It is not that we live in a post-truth dystopia — however close we may be. The book “Infostorms” by Pelle G. Hansen and Vincent F. Hendricks states that many social media sites are results of perfectly rational decisions by those above, “and originate not so much in human foolishness as in the nature of information environments themselves.” Imagine the scenario of the spreading of false information through a media site. Case scenario one: A normal citizen encounters it and relays the information as true. This is the worst one, if we are honest. Case scenario two: The citizen is a little more skeptical and questions: “True or untrue?” The step to take is to look up the answer elsewhere, meaning a process of seeing both possibilities — claims and counterclaims. If the person wants a quick solve, they might just ask for another’s opinion. “When you don’t possess sufficient information to solve a given problem, or if you just don’t want to or have the time for processing it, then it can be rational to imitate others by way of social proof.”  Many take the second choice due to the “arduous” work of the first.

I think it is plausible that sharing content online has become a stabilizing function for our emotions, for political news in particular. Our confusion in our intent of sharing has made us easy marks for the news outlet predators. The term “fake news” has turned to embody our blind outrage. Perhaps, the survival of fake news is due to the waves of social information through social networks because of uncertainty and full-blown ignorance or, possibly, the cult-like following of opinions. No matter what, it lies in the mess of webs that is our society. With our attempts to find the truth in the beast that is yellow journalism, we have let the door wide open for the monster that is fake news — and our former president was riding it.

Contact Carolina at cjimene4@nd.edu by email. 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.