Ah, yes, fake news, the ever-present talking point. Used by nearly everyone, everywhere, to criticize the media, other political parties, or people we just plain don’t like. With the wealth of information available to us in today’s society, it can be difficult to separate the truth from the untruth, the fact from the fiction. We simply don’t have time to fact-check everything that comes our way, not to mention that we often don’t even know how or where to verify the accuracy of information. The result? For as much as we like to use fake news as a reason to disengage with opposing thought groups, we often end up consuming much of this fake news ourselves without even noticing.
One of the main culprits is the illusory truth effect. According to the well-respected online thought blog Farnam Street, the illusory truth effect is the idea that the more times we are exposed to a piece of information, the more likely we are to believe that information is true. Even if we think it’s wrong the first time we see it, we tend to start giving it a foothold in our minds if we are bombarded with the same idea multiple times. I spend a lot of time on Twitter—often to my chagrin, although I’m seeking to make it more beneficial than not. My feed is a strange combination of politics, memes, quotes about being a Midwesterner, and the entire corner of the site dedicated to farmers and agriculture. Regardless of the topic, I’ve noticed a trend.
There are a lot of contradictory “facts” that I see people share. Depending on my emotional response—which is often driven by my past experiences and predefined opinions—and how many times I see a tenet repeated, I tend to either classify these “facts” as true or false. After reading the Farnam Street article, I’ve started paying attention to how I react based on how many times I see a similar piece of information. Based on my personal observations, I already have seen this happening in my own head. It’s actually scary, really, that my thoughts can be so heavily influenced by something as simple as frequency of exposure. Yet, at the same time, my newfound awareness of the illusory truth effect gives me hope. If we choose to pay attention to these phenomena, such as the il
lusory truth effect, we can fight against them. Perhaps it means we consume less. Period. Perhaps it means narrowing our news consumption to only certain sources that remain relatively unbiased, or to a certain time of day where we seek to intentionally learn. Perhaps it’s simply noticing what’s happening in our minds when we are presented with information. At the end of the day, our opinions are up to us. While they can be influenced by outside sources, the final decision is in our hands. As tempting as it is to blame the media, that cannot be the whole problem. Sometimes, more than we’d like to admit, the problem is us, but on the plus side, so is the solution.