Futurelearning

Fake news the result of cognitive bias

In the last of three articles by international experts taking part in Victoria University of Wellington’s ‘Open knowledge vs fake news’ event Associate Professor Michael Macaulay says open information is vital, but it is never enough to defeat the spread of fake news. 

Open information is vital for a functioning democracy. But it is never enough, by itself, to defeat the spread of fake news. There are myriad reasons for this but perhaps the crucial one is simply the way we think.   

Let’s start with the assumption that disinformation has a very strong foothold in current public discourse around the world. We can choose to label this ‘fake news’ but we can also use other categories if needed. Either way, assuming this is the case then we need to accept a number of potentially unpalatable truths.   

First, its pervasiveness may be due to some people’s inability to process information properly and separate facts from fiction. Our individual and collective cognitive biases are too strong for us to understand what is real. Second, and perhaps more worryingly, some people are completely aware of their cognitive biases. They just don’t care. 

These phenomena have been explored many times. Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things is a modern classic on the power of critical thinking and our common inability to exercise that often enough. He shows numerous examples of people (both individuals and groups) who are willing and able to forego facts in favour of strongly held beliefs. The sad truth is that humanity has been fooled by variants of fake news throughout its history because of the power of emotion. 

What is perhaps more dangerous in our own times is our ability to transmit emotional messages that can encourage us to ignore facts. Studies from the US show clearly how social and digital media spreads ‘emotional contagion’, which is why the targeting of key groups with key messages is such a potentially divisive trend. We turn our digital lives into echo chambers. It’s why experts of all hues are so distrusted in polls around the world. 

None of this is helped by public discourse that gives Manichean choices: to reduce Brexit down to ‘stay’ or ‘leave’, to give an obvious example, is to degrade discussion to the point of meaningless tribalism. No good could ever have accrued from such a choice. What this does is present truth as a lifestyle choice, rather than something based on evidence. 

But, again, was it ever not this way? So much of our political thought (at least in the West) is predicated on fiction and in several cases on the demand that political leaders lie to us. Plato’s Republic recommended ‘noble lies’ be told to the populace to keep them loyal, but that a leader’s education should be manipulated to inculcate a sense of patriotism and duty.  There was no room for truth, except of the partial kind through a blend of censorship and restricted content.   

That sounds strikingly 21st century. 

Some of our key concepts are equally pure fiction. There is no social contract; there never has been; and it is unlikely to ever come about in the way that has been envisaged since the mid-17th century. We could argue that they were never meant to be taken literally, that they were hypothetical constructs designed to act as a foundation for other theories. But that does not remove the inherently manipulative character of such hypotheses.   

At least Rousseau, of all the social contractarians, was honest enough to admit this: “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine’, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.” 

Even a modern giant such as John Rawls can be seen in this tradition. Directly situating his work in terms of social contract, Rawls admitted he had skewed his seemingly rationalist and objective Theory of Justice towards specific liberal-democratic outcomes.   

So in order to combat fake news we have – at a minimum – to overcome the human condition and several millennia worth of political tradition. No mean feat but it can be done. That’s because so much of our lives is fictional anyway, at least in the sense that we construct it and agree to abide by its rules. Money doesn’t have an objective reality outside of what we say it is. Value doesn’t.  Ownership doesn’t. Self-identity is arguably just a story we tell ourselves. 

These fictions are vital to our success as human beings. So let us try and understand the rise of fake news as yet another manifestation of an eternal human problem, and use our power of construction to deal with it rationally as well as emotionally. 

Michael Macaulay is a Visiting Professor at the Universities of Sunderland and York St John in the UK and a former Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.  He has written extensively on integrity, ethics and anti-corruption in leading international journals. 

Macaulay and other international experts will be discussing ‘Open knowledge vs fake news’ in a free public event at the National Library of New Zealand in Wellington on Tuesday 6 November as part of Victoria University of Wellington’s Capital City Universities Initiative. 

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