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Down the Rabbit Hole: Why cognitive patterns predispose to fake news consumption

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Most of us are able to recognize an unknown and untrustworthy news source and call it out as such, but what happens to this ability if supposedly reliable figures exploit fake news to their own advantage? A number of behavioral biases characterizing the way we process information can better inform how and why we fall for fake news when they are employed in political discourse. 

Fake news is born with the deliberate intent to misinform and deceive its audience by framing distorted claims as truthful. To an ever-increasing extent, statesmen and politicians are seeping fabricated claims into their discourse aiming, through fearmongering, to secure the public’s support. False claims are present in Hungary’s PM Viktor Orbán’s campaign which exploited his monopoly over the country’s media outlets to spread news about largely non-existent threats. They are in Putin’s lunatic tales about a Ukraine run by Nazis that seemingly still justify the war to some of the Russian population. Or in the case of Pakistan’s now-ousted PM Mr. Khan who still grips onto the widely disproved theory of a foreign conspiracy against his government.  

One of our greatest cognitive strengths is finding meaningful patterns and causal inferences to interpret the world around us. Sometimes automatic mental shortcuts may be employed by the brain to retrieve them, reducing time and energy required. In most cases these shortcuts simplify our thought processes. However, when applied to the wrong context of interpretation or as automatic reactions to information overload they bear resulting cognitive and behavioral fallacies. A number of behavioral biases characterizing how we process information can better inform why we fall for fake news. 

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The “availability heuristic” is a cognitive bias describing how the brain may automatically assess the probability of an event’s occurrence from the ease with which stories regarding its previous happenings can be brought to mind. Reliance on the “availability heuristic” is inherently flawed when events are associated with strong emotions or if their stories are often and easily recalled. It explains why the continuous and repetitive propagandistic broadcasting of fake news is effective in convincing an individual of their trustworthiness. Moreover, it describes how belief in fake news can be induced if these are justified through emotion-filled themes such as threats to traditional values, as in the case of Orbán, or by creating enemies out of neighbors like Putin has done by associating Ukrainians to the hateful themes of Nazism. 

Clarifying why an individual could neglect to question the sincerity of fake news is the “what you see is all there is” cognitive bias. This bias entails that when dealing with limited information it is easier to act as if the given information is all there is to know. In fact, the less information is provided the easier it will be to piece its facts into a coherent story.  

The persistent belief in fake news, even after receiving disproving evidence, is explained by the “confirmation bias”: an individual’s innate tendency to interpret given information as supporting their initial belief. Susceptibility to “confirmation bias” comes from being exposed to only one viewpoint, particularly in conditions of controlled news dissemination, but also, for example, by choosing to consume information from just one source. Subsequently, any proposed disproving evidence is feared to have been tampered with in order for it to dissent from the prior belief that’s considered correct. Essentially, confirmation bias depicts how an individual could become entrenched into their initial ideology.  

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It is paradoxical that in our modern times of light-speed communication, when fact checking could be at the hands of everybody, today’s political discourse can be made and unmade by blatant lies. Intrinsic to why we believe false claims are our perceptions of those who make them, as shaped by the “halo effect”. This effect describes how one distinguishable positive trait of a person can induce an overall positive impression of them, and followingly favour their perceived reliability . It is then key to understand the threat that fake news pose in the hands of those who gain from exploiting their ability to sow fear and division. Just as fundamental as acknowledging why our brains may fall prey to behavioral biases is learning how to overcome disinformation, holding onto the idea that, through informed discussions, common ground can often be found. 

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Articles written by the various members of our team.

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I am a second year BESS student. Having lived both in Italy and the UK, I enjoy exploring how multiculturalism affects our personal identities. I would like to employ writing as a way to decipher culture, and socio-economic issues.

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