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.