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7 reasons why fake news goes viral, according to experts

It’s all about algorithms, human psychology and money.


Fake news illustration.

Fake news illustration.

Fake news illustration.

Whether we like it or not, the term “fake news” is here to stay.

Donald Trump’s go-to catchphrase to discredit media stories and information has been named Collins’ Word Of The Year 2017 with its usage rising by 365% since 2016.

Defined as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”, “fake news” will now be added to the next print edition of Collins Dictionary.

We spoke to scientists, psychologists and experts in the field of digital journalism to get a sense of how and why fake news goes viral and here’s what they had to say.

1. We crave confirmation of our world views and social media is a great place for it

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Dr Jens Binder, senior lecturer in Psychology at Nottingham Trent University, believes that most of the time, sharing on social media is done for emotional reasons and this applies to fake news as well.

He said: “We consume news not just because of the facts in there, but also to make sense of the world, to confirm our notion of how things are working ‘out there’.”

According to Dr Binder, our bias is validated through confirmation, ie, “the more people share my sense of understanding, the more I am convinced that I got it right”.

He said: “Emotional and dramatic fake news items will attract more attention, pretty much like real news of that sort.

“However, the key thing here is these news items confirm people’s world view by for example, creating more outrage targeted against opponent groups or by incriminating those people that we’d like to see incriminated.”

2. Information is social currency, even if it’s inaccurate

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Digital anthropologist Nik Pollinger, who specialises in the relationship between humans and digital technology, believes objective truth can take a secondary place in a world where information acts as social currency.

He said: “As individuals, we crave confirmation of our worldview. Provided we have a base level of trust in the source of information, its objective truth is of secondary importance.

“We also prize information that can be used as social currency to build relationships with our networks or information that, through association with it, signifies something about our identity and group affiliation.

“The more sensational the story we share with others, the more social value it can have.”

3. We love a good rumour

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Dr Binder believes a few people may deliberately choose what information to share on social media to influence opinion but in most cases, people love indulging in a rumour.

He said: “Some people share fake news for strategic reasons, to sway or influence opinion. Most people use social media and related services for personal purposes, not to pursue a political agenda and therefore, most people share fake news for the sake of sharing, like indulging in the latest rumours.

“We always do this as a social practice, online and offline, through gossip. Sharing is easy, internet technologies are optimised to encourage sharing.

“In many instances, people will not verify content, a lengthy and difficult process, but will relate to the topic and will assume that the topic is relevant to their online social contacts.”

4. We have a system that allows news to act like contagion

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According to Dr Francisco Perez-Reche from Aberdeen University, who led a study last year where he created a mathematical model for viral content, sensational news on social media behaves in a manner similar to a virus causing an epidemic.

He said: “We often witness social phenomena that become accepted by many people overnight, especially now in the age of social media.

“This is especially relevant to social contexts in which individuals initially hesitate to join a collective movement, for example a strike, because they fear becoming part of a minority that could be punished.”

Dr Perez-Reche explains that as more people starts accepting the idea, irrespective of whether it is fact of fiction, it creates what he calls a “transmission” strong enough to overcome the “reluctance” in sharing, resulting in an “explosive contagion” of travelling information.

While his research wasn’t focusing specifically on fake news, Dr Perez-Reche says the way fake news travels through social media is much like viral news stories.

5. There are sneaky algorithms working in the background that shows what we want to see

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Dr Philip Seargeant, who co-authored a book called the Language Of Social Media, says algorithms used by Facebook and similar social media sites “has the effect of foregrounding stories from friends with likeminded opinions, and hiding or filtering out stories you’re likely to disagree with”.

He said: “The argument is that this means you’re less likely to engage with a diverse range of ideas, and instead get fed stories and ideas from perspectives you agree with (and have thus liked in the past).”

Dr Seargeant calls this phenomenon a “filter bubble”.

He said: “Because a lot of people get news from sites like Facebook, and because Facebook itself does not editorially weed out the suspect from the authoritative, the argument goes that the fact that people are shielded from views they disagree with means that misinformation can spread that much more easily and quickly.”

6. Fake news publishers are driven by a strong financial motive

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Behind every article click is a publisher monetising the page views.

Pollinger explained: “What is different is that a majority of us now get news from social media sites, with trusted social connections replacing media such as newspapers as our prime news source.

“Because of the way they work, these sites have left the field open as never before to the ideologically driven and financially incentivised to peddle fake news and for people to circulate it.”

While this does not apply to trusted publishers, for websites powered by fake news, money is more important than fact-checking and accuracy.

7. The current political climate has allowed fake news to prosper

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Dr Paul Elmer, principal lecturer at the Lancashire School of Business and Enterprise, believes the rise of fake news has largely been influenced by politicians.

He said: “Politicians are outraged by so called fake news, but they are largely responsible for creating the environment in which it can flourish.

“When policy statements and government practices move beyond parody, we are all free to meet outrage with credulity.

“Yes, fake news is corrosive to democracy, but politicians have played a huge role in creating the environment needed for purveyors of ‘fake news’ to gain legitimacy, which is why these stories often go viral.

“If fake news indicates anything, it is that journalism has got rougher. The danger is that the professionalised cadre of journalists may be tempted to turn to sensationalism, which will only encourage the spread of fake news.”

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