'We believe information when it comes through people we trust'

Updated: Jul 12, 2020, 07:45 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

A New York-based academic's new book attempts to understand the psychology of those who fall for fake news, and traces it back 100 years

The Sunday of October 30, 1938, had been as slow and languorous, as any other weekend in the United States. Little did anyone know then that "a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News," somewhere after 8 pm, would soon disturb this tranquil. It claimed that an extraterrestrial object had crashed to Earth, just 20 miles from Princeton. Events escalated quickly, with the radio announcer reporting that a tentacled alien had emerged from the spacecraft, who then wiped out the militia that had rushed to the site. The bulletin, in fact, was the radio adaptation of director-writer Orson Welles's The War of the Worlds. But, it had sounded so real, that it caused mass hysteria and panic in America.

"Thousands, maybe even millions, of people… were convinced that the country really was under extraterrestrial attack. Police and newspaper switchboards lit up. People went hunting for the downed spaceship. Families fled their homes. Highways were jammed. Churches and police stations were inundated with refugees and volunteers for the armed resistance. People died of heart attacks.

Others took their own lives rather than succumb to the poisonous black smoke. Chaos, confusion, pandemonium," writes academic psychologist and science writer Rob Brotherton in his just released non-fiction, Bad News: Why we fall for Fake News (Bloomsbury).

Rob Brotherton
Rob Brotherton

New York City-based Brotherton, who took two-and-a-half years to research and write the book, says he initially wanted to discuss the "dangers of contemporary fake news, echo chambers, deepfakes, the idea of post-truth, and the psychological quirks that have helped create this current information landscape." "But as I began researching, I found a long history of people criticising the news industry for promoting false and misleading news, and more generally for its routine negativity, sensationalism, its quest for speed at the expense of depth and accuracy. And so, along the way, it became a book about our complicated relationship with news much more generally," says the political psychology lecturer at Barnard College, Columbia University.

Edited excerpts from the interview.

Why is the fake news incident related to Orson Welles from 100 years ago, significant to what we are experiencing at this moment?

The story encapsulates many of the issues that we're still grappling with today—suspicion of new technologies and media formats, calls for regulation of dubious information, and the suspicion that everyone else is a sucker for fake news, but we ourselves are more discerning. By starting 100 years ago, I wanted to make the point that we shouldn't overlook historical lessons and assume that all our current problems are unprecedented.

You do mention that fake news is not new. It's a phenomenon that existed since before the press. What has got us all interested now?

Critics and the public have always been aware of the media's capacity to spread dubious information. The issue has certainly received renewed attention lately, and part of that is undoubtedly President [Donald] Trump's, and others', frequent talk of the "fake news media." But contemporary politicians didn't create this widespread feeling of distrust—in large part, I think they're taking advantage of these long-simmering animosities rather than creating them.

In the book, you write about people being "drawn towards bad news like moths to a flame. Bad things grab our attention". Interestingly, the human response to fake news doesn't seem to be any different, especially among those less mindful about it. What, according to you, is the relationship between bad and fake news?

I see fake news as a subset of the broader news ecosystem. So, fake news can only take root because it plays into the established habits and tropes of mainstream news. There are some good reasons why bad news is particularly attention-grabbing and therefore, makes for a more successful product than good news, but the media has long been criticised for wallowing in negativity. Fake news uses a veneer of the kind of stories we expect to see, which often means saying something negative about someone or something.

In 2019, WhatsApp users in India reached 400 million. But many have been using it as a misinformation network. How problematic can it be for our times?

People directly sharing fake news with friends and family via social media can be much more problematic than when people are more passively exposed to fake stories from websites or more broadcast-oriented social media platforms like Twitter. Going back to War of the Worlds—many of the people who were momentarily scared by the purported news of an invasion hadn't even been listening to Welles's show, but heard the news second-hand from family, friends, or neighbours. We're understandably more trusting of information when it comes to us through people we trust, and that has led to some troubling events when fake stories have circulated among small communities through WhatsApp.

You write about echo chambers and filter bubbles, and how it can be tricky when seen from a psychological lens. Would you agree that troll behaviour, which can get very ugly on platforms like Twitter, is a result of these echo chambers we all live in?

Again, the issue of echo chambers and filter bubbles is more nuanced than the picture often painted in news headlines. Most people most of the time don't appear to be trapped in echo chambers. Most people get their news from large and politically moderate news aggregators like Google News. And even political extremists and trolls don't have impermeable filter bubbles. They need to know what the other side thinks, so that they can argue against it.

In the book, there is a mention of how, most of us are discerning—we can sift between fact and fiction. Yet, the numbers that fall for fake news is alarming. We know it's too simplistic a question to ask, considering that's the thrust of your book, but why do we really fall for it and so easily?

This is such a complicated question that there's no easy answer. Are the numbers of people who fall for fake news alarming? It depends on what you mean by fake news, what it means to fall for it, and what we should consider alarming. In one sense, most people don't fall for fake news simply because most people don't care all that much about the news. On the other hand, fake news (meaning outright fabricated stories posing as legitimate news) can influence some people some of the time, and you could argue that any nonzero amount of false information in the system is cause for alarm. More broadly, even legitimate mainstream news habitually misrepresents reality. So taking a broad view, I'd say that to the extent you think fake news is a problem, it's not going to be fixed just by trying to take down outright false stories one by one, it's going to take a much more systemic look at how the news industry operates in general, and how, we as consumers shape that.

Fake news in the time of COVID

A member of the Tablighi Jamaat leaves after he was discharged following the completion of quarantine period in New Delhi.  PIC/GETTY IMAGES
A member of the Tablighi Jamaat leaves after he was discharged following the completion of quarantine period in New Delhi. PIC/GETTY IMAGES

According to a report by the fact-checking website BOOM in May, COVID-19 related fake news, took a massive spike in early April, particularly after the Tablighi Jamaat incident in Delhi, with a substantial portion of fake news being directed to target a particular minority group depicting them as the reason for the spread of the virus. Of the 178 fact checks the website conducted since the onset of COVID-19 in the country, 35 per cent of them were fake videos, 29 per cent images and a similar percentage were doctored messages on range of issues, including fake diagnosis and treatment, and false lockdown guidelines. A few of its fact checks were on news reports (4 per cent) by mainstream media organisations. Most of these stories were found to make false claims against a particular community.

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