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False Information Labeled “A Cancer” On Enlightened Democracy

Experts discussed the science behind susceptibility to “fake news” during an Annual Meeting session. | Ashley Gilleland/AAAS

Examples of “fake news,” such as a report that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, are the equivalent of a bad cold in the body politic, says Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale University. But much more troubling, he told a session of the 2017 AAAS Annual Meeting, are the “toxic memes” Trump has mastered that represent what he called “a cancer” on enlightened democracy.

Kahan described toxic memes as “recurring, argumentative tropes that convey denigration and disrespect on some party and arouse a sensibility of cultural partisanship.” He cited a Tweet from Trump that “I am being proven right about massive vaccinations – the doctors lied. Save our children and their future.”

Such a Tweet, Kahan said, “is something that really should be taken very seriously.” He said Trump is a particularly accomplished transmitter of false and misleading information that poisons the political culture.

While the spread of “fake news” on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter has triggered increasing concern among scientists and journalists, all of us can be susceptible to flawed or biased reasoning based on our political and cultural preconceptions, Kahan said during a packed 18 February session on “Fake News and Social Media.”

“When you see these fake reports they are not news,” said moderator Seth Borenstein, a science reporter for The Associated Press. “You are giving them the credence of reality, reporting and truth by tossing the word ‘news’ on them. They are fake information.” Borenstein noted that there are all sorts of news organizations “out there to help you navigate real and ‘not real’ news,” including AP, The Washington Post, Politifact and others.

Kahan described two models that might explain a susceptibility to fake news and toxic memes. The “passive aggregator” model involves “credulous members of the public who can be manipulated by false information being transmitted at the behest of economic or political interest groups.” Kahan considers that model to be incorrect. He argues, instead, for a “motivated public” model in which people consume information that matches their political or cultural predispositions.

“I think that is what we saw with fake news during the election cycle, Kahan said. “If people are motivated processors, they are the ones who are going to read this because they already believe it.”  Such people likely would have voted the same way in the election regardless of their exposure to fake news, he said.

What is most important, Kahan said, is to better understand what makes people into motivated processors. Dominique Brossard, professor and chair of the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, agreed with Kahan that “audiences use science that supports their viewpoint.”

She said the issue is not so much social media as it is a need for better understanding of the human psychology that has fostered an era of fake news.

Brossard noted that fake news is not particularly new, citing headlines from the tabloid Weekly World News such as “Elvis is Alive.” She said the line between fake news and bad science reporting can be murky, as when news stories fail to cite all of the caveats and limitations on new studies that can then be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

Headlines from different publications can vary dramatically and not always predictably. When a committee of the National Academies issued a new report on gene editing, the MIT Technology Review’s headline said: “U.S. Panel Endorses Designer Babies to Avoid Serious Disease.” The Telegraph in the United Kingdom said: “U.S. scientists back gene editing but warn against ‘designer babies.’”

“Iffy” news and bad reporting have existed for years, Brossard said, but what has changed? Surveys suggest that people most often get their information on science and technology now via search engines, such as Google, and from like-minded authors in their Facebook news feed. 

In addressing the spread of fake news, “Let’s make sure we do not oversimplify the science media environment,” Brossard said, by talking of “fake news versus real news, or scientists versus the public, or us versus them.” The reality is more complex, she said, and will require more use of sound social science and evidence-based approaches to sort out the allure of fake news.

Julie Coiro, associate professor of education at the University of Rhode Island, outlined ways to make students at all levels smarter consumers of news and better prepared to evaluate and act on information. She cited a recent Stanford University study that found middle, high school and college students struggle to tell fact from fiction in the digital age. Eighty percent of middle school students in the survey, for example, believed that ads were real news.

Coiro said it is important to teach students to be critical consumers of information, weighing multiple dimensions such as bias, reliability and relevance. In the end, she said, the goal is to better tell “where is that news coming from and what makes it fake or not.”

[Associated Image: Ashley Gilleland/AAAS]