Bigger! Better! Faker!

Propaganda is as old as humanity itself, but the internet has given it a new life – that of fake news. Seen here is a Google Search for the term ‘propaganda’. Photo: Diaan Mynhardt

The internet, beautiful yet troubled machine that it is, allows us to do one thing better than ever before, and this one thing is communication. Whether you believe that our modern communications are more superficial than those of decades past or not, the one thing you can’t deny is that we’re doing a heck of a lot more of it.

One of the main mechanism underlying fake news.

Messages come at us so fast that most of us end up being engaged in a kind of Vulcan mind-meld with our social networks, BAEs, friends, parents, or even just that annoying WhatsApp group with the kitten pics. Instant communications are so easy, so trivial, that they slip into our stream of consciousness with barely a notice. We pay so little attention to these incoming signals that they’ve essentially become indistinguishable from thought. And that, dudes and dudettes, is where the trouble starts.

What trouble, Diaan? The trouble with fake memories, my dears. Fake memories are not only the forte of hypnosis-induced recollections of alien abductions in Texas[1], or holy visions and visitations in the countryside of Portugal, but are considered by some researchers to be one of the main mechanism underlying the latest lovechild of propaganda – and advertising revenue – fake news.

Humans are incredibly suggestible creatures.

A 2016 meta-analysis[2] of eight studies on the implantation of fake memories found that research subjects incorporated up to 46% of fake, made-up events about their own lives, if properly primed. By simply asking volunteers to imagine an event as having occurred, nearly half of the false information was later found to have become part of their personal narratives. Results like these prove how easily lies become indistinguishable from truth. We humans are incredibly… let me repeat this… incredibly suggestible creatures. A momentary slip-up of any one of the various gatekeeper functions of our minds, and fake news becomes real – an easy task considering our general distractedness.

Feeding Information Directly into our distracted, overstimulated brains.

One mechanism that plays a critical role is that of peer acceptance; fake news seems to be a numbers game. In a study of over 600 Twitter users[3], researcher Hyegyu Lee of the University of Handong in South Korea found that the number of retweets, or shares, a specific tweet received greatly influenced the degree to which its content was accepted or rejected. Even more startling than the truth-making effect of retweets, is the fact that their power to persuade remains even if tweets are marked as true or false. The verified truthfulness of a piece of information is less influential on its perceived believability than the number of times it has been shared.

The internet, the greatest machine ever built by humans – a giant network of cables, fibres, and radio waves that cocoon the entire planet – has turned out to be the best mechanism yet for feeding any and all information straight past our filters, and directly into our distracted, overstimulated brains. It’s a giant, cosmic joke, let’s just hope we can deal with the punchline.

Sagan C. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Random House 1995.
Scoboria A, Wade KA, Lindsay DS, et al. A mega-analysis of memory reports from eight peer-reviewed false memory implantation studies. Memory. 2016;25:146–63. doi: 10.1080/09658211.20161260747
Lee H, Oh HJ. Normative Mechanism of Rumor Dissemination on Twitter. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. 2017;20:164–71. doi: 10.1089/cyber.20160447

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