On Fake News

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If confirmation bias is based on the idea that what “sounds” good is what is likely to be believed, then critical thinking is its nemesis. Critical thinking requires the objective examination and review of facts in order to lead a conclusion, and on the surface emotions don’t play into critical thinking–which is, in and of itself, a fallacy. Human beings are emotional creatures, and while we can manage our feelings we don’t typically rid ourselves of them (or ignore them) entirely. Critical thinking, however, is far more challenging because it requires the acknowledgement of one’s own biases, and that’s often where human beings fall down–especially online.

Confirmation bias is something that everyone can fall prey to, myself included, and it’s often been ignored due to the way that information is presented online. Now, however, it’s not necessarily confirmation bias that I’m concerned about, it’s the side effects that can have a dramatic impact for the simple fact that the more information we share, the more views tend to be simplified, the less critical discussion takes place, and the more stereotypes (via confirmation biases) are reinforced. Unfortunately, confirmation bias is supported by yellow journalism. The goal of failing news outlets, that have not been able to navigate various mediums financially, has long been to trigger an emotional response for the goal of making money. Both legitimate and fake news sources have an agenda; both require an emotional reaction in order to get readers to take action via a share, like, etc. Both require those reactions to make money and stay in business, and only one is based on facts. The other? Inspired by the facts, which means that those lies can be believed because they sound real. Both operate the way they do, because they are businesses.

When a site’s agenda is to make money based on the attention it gets, there is no floor or ceiling for what will or won’t be covered. This is a numbers game. Visits and actions taken are what’s being counted–not the quality of either–and confirmation bias fuels both. The site’s metrics don’t “care” whether that article is being refuted or not. The point of the article is engagement, not belief or disbelief, and no matter how many times I’ve said it–the truth is that fake news sites can be bankrupted if we stop paying attention to them. Attention, now more than ever, has effectively legitimized the need for screaming headlines. To retain critical thinking and pay less attention to fake news, however, a reader needs something that isn’t often afforded online–time.

In order to make an informed decision about the validity of a piece of news, the reader has to click through and read the article. Many don’t, however, and there’s no incentive to do that. Sharing is an incentive, and serves as a separate metric to reading the content on the actual page. Sharing, however, is impacted by confirmation bias. If the headline sounds good, it’s shared. But, if it doesn’t sound good that headline has to be appalling enough to be shared. This means that content needs to be written more and more aggressively, to “keep the reader on their toes”, in order to continue attracting readers. Make no mistake: the long-term goals of retaining readers, encouraging them to think critically, and building so-called brand loyalty aren’t as important as getting eyeballs on the page right now, simply because there is a financial reward associated with immediacy. The more “cliffhangers” there are, to coin a phrase, the more money fake news outlets make because not all of them are beholden to the 24-hour news cycle from mainstream media and, if they are, they can continue riffing off of verified news.

As fake news outlets are paid more attention to, their worth becomes legitimized not only because of confirmation bias, but because of the money and trusted high profile individuals supporting them. (Think back to the power of celebrity endorsements, and how a celebrity’s product placement can influence what a consumer buys.) The more money that fuels fake news, the less goes to factual or well-established organizations, and the less incentive mainstream outlets have to take the higher road. This, too, however, has an impact on critical thinking in the sense that being emotional online is encouraged because someone is making money off of the responses involved. Offline this would never happen. Most people don’t want to deal with a highly emotional person because that individual is viewed as a drama queen, unstable, and untrustworthy, and emotional expression is often taboo. But, emotions are attached to words, they are felt by reading them. That’s why so much of what’s happening can’t be “seen” as too emotional–they’re just words, after all.

Compare this to subliminal advertising. Subliminal advertising is engineered to influence a consumer’s decision without their knowledge, and it’s considered subliminal because the purpose of those ads falls below the average person’s attention span. It was thought to be widely used, but wasn’t addressed until the public demanded it to be.

In 1973 the book Subliminal Seduction claimed that subliminal techniques were in wide use in advertising. The book contributed to a general climate of fear with regard to Orwellian dangers (of subliminal messaging). Public concern was enough to lead the Federal Communications Commission to hold hearings and to declare subliminal advertising “contrary to the public interest” because it involved “intentional deception” of the public. — SOURCE: Psychologist World

Consider, then, that perhaps fake news sites are using a form of subliminal advertising with the intent of intentionally deceiving the public in order to make money. One of the side effects of confirmation bias, is that even after being told something the reader believed to be true was false, the reader still believes that initial article. (This is partially fueld by “The Backfire Effect.”) This is the reason why sites like Politifact and Snopes exist. At the same time, since there’s literally no consequences for lying to get the reader’s attention, there’s no incentive to clamp down on fake news of any sort.

Regardless of whether you buy into the idea that misleading information is a form of subliminal advertising or not, the reality of these sites is that they are producing more money than verified news outlets. That’s concerning at the best of times, and more worrisome as we move further into a “cliffhanger”-style political news cycle. With a divided country, confirmation bias is at an all-time high–which allows misinformation to be used for misdirection that will reduce public pressure in crisis situations partly because there’s only one emotional tone–outrage.

When a reader’s emotional feedback loop begins with outrage, then continues with a momentary spot of guilt for being outraged, and ends with a fresh round of outrage, it will be difficult for the average reader to prioritize what crises are worth responding to in addition to having a job, taking care of themselves and their families, etc. Worse, in my mind, will be the fact that as crises continue to happen, critical thinking will be shunned in favor of an easy answer–which puts emergency professionals like detectives, doctors, firefighters, etc. at risk because they’re simply not “thinking fast enough” to come up with the answer in a crisis situation.

Since it’s unlikely that an entire culture would engage in critical thinking all at once, it’s more probable that one of two things will happen with respect to fake news in particular: either a third party authentication site or ruling body will step in, or we will see a push for verified or trusted websites (a la the Better Business Bureau) as we do individual social media accounts. Both are predicated on the assumption that publishing fake news isn’t grounds for prosecution or public pressure en masse. In order to encourage reform, first there needs to be a demand for it from an audience who has the power to seek it.

Regardless, I sense we’re now reaching critical mass of the content being produced online. We’ve stepped away from “produce, produce, produce” to “produce to evoke an emotional reaction to make money”. What comes after that? What comes after: “I have no time to process the information I’m receiving, so I’ll go with my gut reaction instead.” I don’t know, but I will tell you one thing: the critical mass I thought we were heading towards is happening even faster than I believed it would.

This is not sustainable. If we’re also on track to lose the battle for net neutrality, I suspect the future of the internet will be reduced to pay-to-pay corporate-run conglomerates that produce content within their silos to attract “their” customers or readers. By doing so, the presentation of opposing viewpoints to stir conversation/reaction and extend the life cycle of a piece of news will be continued and amplified with more cliffhangers, instead of presenting verified facts when necessary in repeated intervals.

It goes without saying that I hope I’m wrong. Fictional stories have power, but what happens when the news becomes a fictional story? I guess we’ll find out.

Monica Valentinelli is an author, artist, and narrative designer who writes about magic, mystery, and mayhem. Her portfolio includes stories, games, comics, essays, and pop culture books.

In addition to her own worlds, she has worked on a number of different properties including Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Hunter: the Vigil, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore near you.

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