Why people knowingly share falsehoods

It used to be that liars would be embarrassed when caught in their lies.

But in our post-truth era, the truth is secondary to beliefs. Lies no longer result in humiliation.

image: The Conversation

Oxford Languages, the world’s leading dictionary, explained the essential characteristic of our new age when they chose post-truth as the word-of-the-year in 2016. In a press release, they said we are living in an age in which there is no distinction between truth and feeling; we were entering an era in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” 

That was the year when the Great Pretender became president of the United States.

Fact checker Daniel Dale itemized the sayings of President Donald Trump and found he had made a total of 30,573 false and misleading claims throughout his presidency.

The torrent of lies would have brought down a president before the post-truth era. But even after his falsehoods, 54 per cent of Republicans said they would vote for Trump again.

Naively, I thought that if people were educated on how to assess the quality of information that they would stop spreading falsehoods. Not so.

Researchers in Denmark found that the truth is no barrier in the spread of falsehoods. Using a series of educational videos, researchers educated 1,600 Twitter users on how to identify untrustworthy content online. Then they compared their Twitter interactions before and after they had watched the videos.

The study found that, while training taught people how to identify false content, it did not dissuade them from sharing it. “Participants performing well on the ‘fake news’ quiz were just as likely to share untrustworthy news stories.”

Huh? Even when people knew that was they were sharing was false, they did so anyway?

It turns out that people don’t share fake news because they actually believe it to be true. Rather, they believe in its value. Sharing demonstrates their allegiance to a particular social group.

I now realize that the boundary between facts and opinion has blurred. A comment on one of my columns was: “This is opinion?” I thought it was obvious that what I write is my opinion. Sure, I quote what I hope are reputable sources to support my opinion but in the end it’s just my view.

I now realize that what the commenter was looking for in an opinion piece was a rant. Anything that wasn’t bombast was a statement of fact.

Viviane Fairbank, a professional fact-checker for Harper’s and the Walrus, struggles with the difference between fact and opinion. Maybe everything we read, aside from science, is a matter of opinion:

“I’ve now come to believe there’s another, more salient characteristic of our age, beyond the post-truth designation. It is a relic of the past few centuries of rationalism in the Western world: the idea that there can ever be a definitive distinction between fact, on the one hand, and everything else, on the other (the Walrus, April 7, 2021).”

Fact-checking has become a form of allegiance signalling. Fact checks that begin with the implicit premise “look how wrong and stupid these people are” only lead to greater mistrust between groups.

What really matters is social bonding. The only way that minds will be changed is by influencing group leaders.

In the post-truth era, that’s a fact.

The rise of populism in the attention economy

We only have so much attention to give and as such, it’s a valuable resource. Everyone wants our attention: social media, advertisers, politicians, family and friends. Attention is a limited resource and technology gobbles up at lot of it; just look at the number of people glued to their screens on any street or in any cafe.

Herbert Simon image: Wikipedia

Noble Prize winning political scientist Herbert A. Simon described the concept of the attention economy in 1971. The growth of information dilutes our attention. Simon says:

“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

More recently, James Williams has researched how technology absorbs our attention. Williams is a doctoral researcher at Oxford University but before that he also spent 10 years working for Google. He believes that the liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time.

Williams spoke to CBC’s Spark about the misalignment between the goals that we have for ourselves and the goals that our technologies would impose on us. Technology attracts attention that we would really like to apply elsewhere. He told host Nora Young:

“The things that we want to do with our lives, the things that we’ll regret not having done, the things that I think technology exists to help us do aren’t really represented in the system and aren’t really the sort of incentives that are driving the design of most of these technologies of our attention today (June 1, 2018).”

Seen from the goal of attention-getting, U.S. President Trump makes a lot of sense. He does whatever it takes to get our attention because he understands the impact that it has on his ratings. The content of his Tweets may be sheer fabrication but that’s not the point. His years as a TV showman taught him the effect that outrage has on tribalism. What is factually true is irrelevant.

“This is what people didn’t realize about him [Trump] during the election, just the degree to which he just understood the way the media works and orchestrated it,” says Simon. “But I don’t think there is going back, as long as these media dynamics remain as they are. In a way, I think we have to be more concerned about what comes after Trump than what we have with him.”

Trump is not interested in unifying the country –he wants to divide it so the largest tribe is his.

Research published in the February issue of American Sociological Review reveals the way Trump supporters view his acknowledged dishonesty. Participants in a study were told that one of Trump’s tweets about global warming being a hoax had been definitely debunked –that global warming is real. Trump supporters saw the tweet, not as literal, but as a challenge to the elite (Scientific American, September, 2018).

Canadian philosopher and public intellectual, Marshall McLuhan, foresaw the impact of technology:

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us,” and “The new electronic independence re-creates the world in the image of a global village.”

Four decades later, McLuhan might have added: “Populism is the politics of the global village.”