Links and Comments: Fake News and the Narrative Bias

Tuesday’s New York Times Science Section has an article by Benedict Carey called How Fiction Becomes Fact on Social Media (it was posted several days ago online). Among the endless stories about fake news and books about the human mental bias towards understanding everything as *narrative*, this one combines these themes with close examination about how (deliberately promoted) fake news on social media spreads so readily.

Yet the psychology behind social media platforms — the dynamics that make them such powerful vectors of misinformation in the first place — is at least as important, experts say, especially for those who think they’re immune to being duped. For all the suspicions about social media companies’ motives and ethics, it is the interaction of the technology with our common, often subconscious psychological biases that makes so many of us vulnerable to misinformation, and this has largely escaped notice.


For one, the common wisdom that these rumors gain circulation because most people conduct their digital lives in echo chambers or “information cocoons” is exaggerated, Dr. Nyhan said.

In a forthcoming paper, Dr. Nyhan and colleagues review the relevant research, including analyses of partisan online news sites and Nielsen data, and find the opposite. Most people are more omnivorous than presumed; they are not confined in warm bubbles containing only agreeable outrage.

But they don’t have to be for fake news to spread fast, research also suggests. Social media algorithms function at one level like evolutionary selection: Most lies and false rumors go nowhere, but the rare ones with appealing urban-myth “mutations” find psychological traction, then go viral.

Psychological traction — that is, the appeal to the narrative bias, that there must be some hidden order to the world, that your side is right and that the other side is irredeemably evil, and so on. Thus the appeal of conspiracy theories; social media exacerbates them through repetition.

Over time, for many people, it is that false initial connection that stays the strongest, not the retractions or corrections: “Was Obama a Muslim? I seem to remember that….”

In a recent analysis of the biases that help spread misinformation, Dr. Seifert and co-authors named this and several other automatic cognitive connections that can buttress false information.

Another is repetition: Merely seeing a news headline multiple times in a news feed makes it seem more credible before it is ever read carefully, even if it’s a fake item being whipped around by friends as a joke.

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