Why do people believe in fake news?

May 31, 2022 11:40
Photo: Reuters

The angry, ferocious message comes again – this time, with the crispy malice of a pesty cold that wouldn’t go away. It’s the thirtieth message you receive from your Whatsapp contact – someone who has many a thought about the world, and far fewer thoughts about your privacy and not spamming your inbox (to be fair, I’m guilty of said spam at times, too, with my own writings and all). After all these years? Fine, let’s oblige for once.

You click into the link. A caption runs across it, “WHAT THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA AREN’T TELLING YOU ABOUT THE WAR.” A few gunshots, a bunch of explosions later, a text-filled screen emerges: “THIS IS EVIDENCE THAT RUSSIA IS WINNING, THEY WOULDN’T REPORT THIS ON MSM.” (For your information, “MSM” stands for Mainstream Media). Damn, Alex Jones has come to Hong Kong, and alongside him is Tucker Carlson. What a motley crew of lovely soothsayers.

Exasperated, you sigh. You sip on a cup of pumpkin spice latte. You gaze forlornly into the lush greenery out there – the grass is greener on the other side, they say. What if this, too, was something the mainstream media ™ had been lying to you all along about… What if the water you drank contained lead and mercury… What if the government were planting chips into you via satellite technology… What if all these conspiracy nutjobs were, in fact, nutjobs.

“Why do folks believe in fake news?” is the 2020s version of “Why do folks fall for conspiracy theories?” And of course, the usual caveats apply – not all conspiracies are fake, and not all fake news is utterly and wholly erroneous. Indeed, as philosopher Arendt observes, “Facts and events are infinitely more fragile things than axioms, discoveries, theories, which are produced by the human mind.” The whole point about reality and truth is that neither is particularly believable – hence the creation of a spectacular class of glaringly ‘intuitive’ yet fundamentally false mistruths and lies. Both conspiracies and fake news are believable – often more so than objective, historical facts (I take here that it is at least the case that there exist objective facts – whether or not such facts are innately knowable is, of course, a separate and epistemic matter).

And there’s where the similarities between conspiracies and fake news end. Conspiracies are traded and exchanged on the basis of their being secretive – at least, those who “conspire” and who propagate “conspiratorical truths” do not want everyone to find out; elsewise, the enigma and magic of conspiracism are dissipated, as conspiracies become publicly accepted and declaimed truths. In contrast, fake news is designed to be mass-propagated – from clips of Hillary Clinton and Hunter Biden saying words they never said, to allegations that this country or that country ostensibly produced the virus, to, ironically, the nonsensical blabber churned out by Donald Trump, the orange idiot who came up with the phrase to begin with.

Which brings us back to the question at hand. Why do so many folks fall for fake news? The straightforward answer – and a most plausible one – is the rise of social media. Social media platforms trade on the basis of maximising users’ attention, engagement, and dependence on them for information. As such, the emphasis in their modus operandi is distinctively oriented around grabbing the eyeballs of the reader, as well as hooking them in with content that poses least resistance (cognitive dissonance) with what they already believe in. Finally, with the shortening and reduction in depth and quantity of details to the contents available on social media platforms, it is no wonder that users would eschew fact-checking and independent verification, in favour of embracing the dearth of nuance that permeates online discourses.

You stare at your screen. Another interlocutor is feeling uppity and angry in equal parts today. “YOU HAVE BEEN BRAINWASHED BY THE PRO-ESTABLISHMENT MEDIA IN HONG KONG” They insist. You shrug. You’re used to being branded by different sides as ‘brainwashed’ by the other side. After all, that’s what brainwashed people tend to think – they tend to see others brainwashed, and themselves unwashed.

I think there’s more to the story than social media, truth be told. I reckon the rise of fake news has everything to do with the anchorlessness – the sense of anomie and perturbed rootlessness – that constitutes the modern condition. We live in times of flux, where everything is constantly changing. We live in states of drastic transformations and upheaval. There is no certainty about anything in our lives – that’s for certain, unless we enshroud ourselves with privilege and mirthful ignorance. Ignorance is bliss, no?

And the consistently resonant, coherent, and often craftily generated contents in fake news play to our senses – they appeal to us because we WANT what they say to be true, and thus we BELIEVE in what they say. It’s only natural: confirmation bias, just world hypothesis, affective bias… psychologists have researched and spoken of this phenomena for decades. But what is indeed new here, is the extent to which mass opinion-tracing technology and data surveillance modes of discursive generation and monitoring, have been leveraged upon to transform soundbites of erroneous claims into authentically and plausibly appearing ‘factive claims’. What’s new here, too, is the unbridled and unabashed zeal with which ALL POLITICIANS seem to engage with the spewing of fake news, lies, and tropes.

The Ukraine war is a complex and complicated geopolitical quagmire. Yet with some of these videos and ‘snippets’ I’ve been receiving, you could easily forgive me – if I were to buy into what was said there – for thinking that the war was due to finish, even before it’d even started. After all, one would expect “THE BEST ARMY IN THE ENTIRE WORLD, AMERICANS WON’T TELL YOU ABOUT HOW GOOD THEY ARE!!!” to win the war outright, as opposed to haemorrhaging troops left right and centre. Oh wait, maybe I have indeed been brainwashed by fake news. Time to watch some state propaganda instead!

-- Contact us at [email protected]

HKEJ contributor