Let’s Fight The Scourge Of Fake News Using Behavioral Science

Gleb Tsipursky | Professor and activist for truth

Fake news — defined by Collins Dictionary as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting” — is widespread in our society.

Consider the claim by a gun rights organization, Everytown, that the school shooting in Parkland, Florida was the 18th school shooting of 2018. This claim is false, due to the extremely wide definition of “school shooting” used by Everytown.

Also consider Hillary Clinton’s false claims that she lost due to Wisconsin’s voter ID laws. (She didn’t.)

Or consider Donald Trump’s exaggeration that the United States has trade deficits with almost all countries (we have trade surplus with about half of all countries).

For the purpose of understanding fake news, let’s focus on Everytown’s false school shooting claim. When we hear the term “school shooting,” we think of a gunman — usually a student — firing at other students or school staff. However, Everytown included any incident where “a firearm discharges a live round inside a school building or on a school campus or grounds.” For instance, the first school shooting of 2018 year as counted by Everytown was a 31-year-old man killing himself with a gun in a school parking lot.

Despite the falsehood of the 18th school shooting claim, prominent media venues like Time wrote articles that portrayed as accurate, and progressive activist organizations and individuals posted about this widely on social media. They gave credibility to the sensationalized, deceptive narrative of widespread school shootings that helped spur the March for Our Lives. How do we address this fake news sharing, both by private citizens and public figures and organizations?

The problem of fake news

Unfortunately, fake news is not only widespread. People believe it. According to a Stanford University study, even savvy digital and social media news consumers have trouble differentiating real from fake news stories.

Given people’s vulnerability to fake news, it should not come as a surprise that organizations such as Everytown try to manipulate citizens into believing untrue things.

After all, organizations want to advance their agendas and politicians want to win elections. If they can safely ignore or circumvent fact-checking and use distortions on social media to win support, fake news is bound to gain momentum.

This momentum, in turn, undermines trust in the political system, opening doors for authoritarianism and corruption. After all, if a politician can lie successfully about whether he stuffs his pockets or not, and get his supporters to buy his lies, then how can we as citizens prevent government corruption? Similarly, if a politician spreads fake news about the electoral process such as about voter ID laws, and uses such falsehoods to manipulate the political context in her favor, we are sliding toward authoritarianism.

Tilting the scale toward truth

Tilting the scale toward truth requires a two-pronged approach focused on both private citizens and public figures. Research reveals that people tend to be more honest when they are reminded about the value of truth and make commitments in advance to integrity. Public figures can also be swayed if they know there will be transparent, clear information about who is truthful, coupled with reputational rewards for honesty and penalties for dishonesty.

Drawing on such research-backed insights, the Pro-Truth Pledge project asks all private citizens, public figures and organizations who care about truth and want to fight fake news to sign a pledge at ProTruthPledge.org. Signers commit to truth-oriented behaviors such as fact-checking before sharing, citing sources, retract incorrect statements, and celebrate people who change their minds based on new information.

Private citizens who sign the pledge get the benefit of contributing to a more truth-oriented society. Public figures get more substantive rewards for signing the pledge, in the form of positive media and public recognition because taking the pledge conveys that the public figure is more trustworthy than those public figures who choose to not take the pledge.

The pledge provides external credibility for public figures due to the accountability mechanism, because anyone can report a public figure who violates the pledge, kicking off an investigation by private citizens who volunteer to help enforce the pledge. Overall, the pledge combines the Wikipedia crowdsourcing model of fact-checking with the Better Business Bureau model for rewarding ethical behavior and holding public figures accountable.

The pledge would help differentiate between credible organizations and politicians, and those which are not, helping prevent corruption and authoritarianism. In turn, the more private citizens sign the pledge, the more effective the pledge becomes, since public figures have a greater incentive to sign the pledge as a result of the credibility boost they get from their signature. A research study done on the pledge shows that pledge-takers indeed share much less misinformation after they take the pledge, and retract incorrect statements. Whether this approach can succeed depends on how many private citizens sign the pledge at ProTruthPledge.org.

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a professor at Ohio State University. He is passionate about promoting rational thinking, and wise decision-making. He is a co-founder of the Pro-Truth Pledge, and the author of a number of a number of books, most notably the #1 Amazon bestseller The Truth Seeker’s Handbook: A Science-Based Guide.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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