Nearly everyone agrees that we face a fake news epidemic the likes of which we haven’t seen before. For years, American citizens have reported that they are more concerned about fake news than other political issues like terrorism, immigration or racism, and this concern is now shared by most citizens from Brazil to Japan. What can we do about it?
The standard suggestion is to get people better information. If we can get people to the truth, we can stem the tide of misinformation. So, we slap “Disputed” tags on Twitter feeds, remove misleading information from Facebook and flag videos with “Manipulated Media” labels.
And it makes almost no difference. In fact, it often makes the situation worse. In a recent study reported in The Washington Post, when a Tweet by the president claiming that mail-in votes are fraudulent is labeled as “Disputed” by Twitter, the addition of the label makes Democratic viewers far more likely to reject the content and Republican viewers far more likely to endorse it. In other words, fact-checking political speech in this case makes it more likely that some in the audience endorse the misinformation.
The simple answer is that humans don’t always want the truth above all else. We value believing truly, yes, but we also value other things. And when we can’t have both, sometimes truth is sacrificed.
That’s why the standard solution to the fake news epidemic is naive. Simply giving people the tools to find the truth is often ineffective. If I don’t want to dig a hole, giving me a shovel won’t make me any more likely to dig one. If I don’t want the truth about mail-in ballots, giving me tools to find the truth won’t make me any more likely to do so.
So, if we have other ends besides truth, what are they? There are many, but here is one: We value our membership in certain groups. Humans dominate the globe because of our intelligence and ability to cooperate. As Thomas Hobbes famously pointed out, without cooperation, our lives would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. And we’re more likely to find cooperation and reciprocation within our group.
But humans look alike, and so we need a way to reliably tell who’s who. That’s where signals come in. We rely on signals from other people to tell which tribe they belong to. Wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt sends one sort of signal. Wearing a Blue Lives Matter T-shirt sends another. We use those signals to determine whether other people are part of our political tribe.
So far, so good. What does this have to do with fake news? Everything. Signals don’t work unless they are reliable. If everyone is sending the same signal, then we can’t sort them into in-groups and out-groups. That means a belief won’t work as a reliable signal unless its endorsed by one and only one political faction. Political beliefs are often of this sort.
This group-signaling explanation predicts the backfire effect of the Twitter corrections perfectly. A mere Tweet from the president doesn’t sway people on either side of the spectrum. But a Twitter label does. That’s because the label makes the content of the Tweet a good candidate for a reliable signal.
The takeaway lesson is that the standard solution for stemming the fake news epidemic is wrong-headed. In some cases, giving people better information or tools will make a difference, but in many cases it will not. In those cases, improving the accuracy of beliefs will not be a function of evidence, fact-checking or any other sort of news literacy.
Justin McBrayer is a philosophy professor at Fort Lewis College.