Truth decay, fake news, disinformation, Russian propaganda, science, misinformation | Homeland Security Newswire

Truth decayThe partisan brain: Why people are attracted to fake news and what to do about it

By Andrea Pereira and . Jay J. Van Bavel

Published 14 June 2018

Orwell’s famous novel, 1984, describes a totalitarian state in which the government demands that citizens abandon their own perceptions, memories, and beliefs in favor of party propaganda. In this dystopian nightmare, people are forced against their will to adopt the beliefs of the ruling party. However, modern research in political science, psychology, and neuroscience suggests that people are often quite willing to adopt the (mis)beliefs of political parties and spread misinformation when it aligns with their political affiliations.

Orwell’s famous novel, 1984, describes a totalitarian government in which the party in power manipulates the minds of its citizens through perpetual war, government surveillance, propaganda, and aggressive police, and demands that they abandon their own perceptions, memories, and beliefs in favor of party propaganda.

In this dystopian nightmare, people are forced against their will to adopt the beliefs of the ruling party. However, modern research in political science, psychology, and neuroscience suggests that people are often quite willing to adopt the (mis)beliefs of political parties and spread misinformation when it aligns with their political affiliations.

While it is widely accepted that identification with a political party – or partisanship – shapes political judgments such as voting preferences or support for specific policies, there is now evidence that it may shape belief in more elemental information. For example, US Democrats and Republicans disagree on scientific findings, such as climate change, economic issues, and even facts that have little to do with political policy, such as crowd sizes. These examples make it clear that people can ignore their own eyes and ears even in the absence of a totalitarian regime.

The influence of partisanship on cognition is a serious threat to democracies, because they assume that citizens have access to factual knowledge in order to participate in public debates and make informed decisions in elections and referenda. If that knowledge is biased, then the resulting decisions made by citizens are likely to be biased as well. Worse, there are reasons to believe that this knowledge can be actively and voluntarily distorted in order to shape the outcome of certain democratic processes.

For example, the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, has publicly accused Russia of ‘planting fake stories’ to ‘sow discord in the West’, and suggested that fake news (spread by Russia) has influenced several national elections in Ukraine, Bulgaria, France and the US, as well as the Brexit campaign. Likewise, roughly 126 million Americans may have been exposed to Russian trolls’ fake news on Facebook during the 2016 US Presidential election. This stresses the scope and consequences of political misinformation.