No one wants to feel stupid, uninformed, or gullible — and fake news, if convincing, has the ability to make us feel all those things.
That, I suspect, is why recent poll results from Pew Research Center find nearly nine in 10 Americans say fake news is causing some degree of confusion about basic current events (with nearly two thirds agreeing it has caused “a great deal” of confusion), yet far fewer are willing to admit they personally have been confused.
As I summarized in a post about this poll over at The Week, most Americans agree fake news is a big problem, but only for other people.
Where this can get ugly is when we decide those stupid, uninformed, gullible people also happen to be the people who don’t share our political views. Since fake news became a major story in this post-election season, it seems both left and right are playing hot potato, trying to pin the stupidity on their opponents — but in my observation, at least, the suggestion that right-wingers are most likely to be fooled pops up more often.
This excerpt from an NPR interview with the owner of several fake news sites makes this point:
When did you notice that fake news does best with Trump supporters?
Well, this isn’t just a Trump-supporter problem. This is a right-wing issue. Sarah Palin’s famous blasting of the lamestream media is kind of record and testament to the rise of these kinds of people. The post-fact era is what I would refer to it as. This isn’t something that started with Trump. This is something that’s been in the works for a while. His whole campaign was this thing of discrediting mainstream media sources, which is one of those dog whistles to his supporters. When we were coming up with headlines it’s always kind of about the red meat. Trump really got into the red meat. He knew who his base was. He knew how to feed them a constant diet of this red meat.
We’ve tried to do similar things to liberals. It just has never worked, it never takes off. You’ll get debunked within the first two comments and then the whole thing just kind of fizzles out.
Another fake news writer similarly said that targeting the right is the most “profitable” option in his profession because “They don’t fact-check.”
A Buzzfeed article, meanwhile, looked at three large, right-of-center Facebook pages and compared them with three similarly popular left-wing pages. The analysis concluded that the right-wing pages were about twice as likely to share fake news than the left-leaning ones, publishing fake content 38 vs. 20 percent of the time. (How just six pages could provide an adequate basis for an article cast as data journalism was not, to my mind, adequately addressed.)
Drawing on both these pieces, a Washington Post article pondered why “conservatives might be more likely to fall for fake news,” reviewing research from social scientists who argue liberals are slightly more inclined toward critical thinking and thus better able to detect fake news, as well as research from those who find no significant difference.
“Bottom line,” said one psychologist in the latter category, “there’s ample evidence of politically biased information processing across the entire ideological spectrum.”
Without following in Buzzfeed’s footsteps in claiming to have comprehensive data I actually lack, I’m inclined to agree. We’re most easily fooled when headlines tell us what we expect and in some sense want to hear.
That’s why hoax stories of Trump-inspired, violent hate crimes have proliferated in recent days, spread mostly by people on left. Consider, for instance, the headline construction our friends at Buzzfeed went with for this debunked story of harassment in New York City, in contrast with the headline used for the news that it was a hoax:
“When Buzzfeed published the story of Seweid’s arrest on Wednesday, the headline read ‘Woman Arrested For Allegedly Making Up Story of NY Subway Attack by Trump Supporters,’ carrying more skepticism in the fact that she was arrested for fabricating the story, than Buzzfeed gave to its original report,” noted Stephen Miller at Heat Street. “These editors, apparently not convinced that Donald Trump provides enough real life clickbait content, rushed off to prove their desired narrative” when they published that original post.
More innocuously, this bias is also why people share fake news stories that claim a celebrity is moving to their hometown or a movie is being filmed there: They like their home, and they want it to prosper, so they happily share a story suggesting it will.
All that said, this is not to let the right off easy. Anecdotally—and I stress that word—I do see conservatives falling for obviously fake or wildly distorted stories more often than I see their left-wing counterparts doing the same. I can’t tell you how often conservative family members have sincerely asked me if some ridiculous rumor they heard about President Obama or Hillary Clinton is true. As Rare’s Matt Purple has argued, “False stories have become a problem on the right,” as “Conservatism has fallen from the erudite reflections of William F. Buckley to the 2,000-point screaming font of the supermarket rag.”
Still, fake and deceptively framed news is a cross-partisan issue, and even with new fact-checking efforts, I don’t see it going away any time soon. We would all do well to exercise a bit more skepticism toward stories that tell us what we want to hear — and a bit more grace toward the unfortunates who get fooled.