Citizen Action Monitor

How fake news compromises human rationality, posing a grave threat to reasoned discussion and democracy

“Before democratic politics can begin, we must be able to distinguish between opinions and facts, fake news and objective truth.”

No 2547 Posted by fw, November 19, 2019

Rachel Anne Barr

“’Fake news’ is a relatively new term, yet it’s now seen as one of the greatest threats to democracy and free debate. In the Netflix documentary The Great Hack — which chronicled the rise and fall of Cambridge Analytica — we saw how Facebook data was used to target potential voters with insidious right-wing propaganda packaged as if it were news. But how does fake news work? Neuroscience can provide at least some insight. … The ability of fake news to grab our attention and then highjack our learning and memory circuitry goes a long way to explaining its success. But its strongest selling point is its ability to appeal to our emotions. Studies of online networks show text spreads more virally when it contains a high degree of ‘moral emotion,’ which drives everything we do. … We rely on our ability to place information into an emotional frame of reference that combines facts with feelings. Our positive or negative feelings about people, things and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, long before we’re aware of them. This processing operates with exposures to emotional content as short as 1/250th of a second, ‘an interval so brief that there is no recognition or recall of the stimulus.’ … In the absence of any authoritative perspective on reality, we are doomed to navigate our identities and political beliefs at the mercy of our brains’ more basal functions. The capacity to nurture and sustain peaceful disagreement is a positive characteristic of a truly democratic political system. But before democratic politics can begin, we must be able to distinguish between opinions and facts, fake news and objective truth.”  —Rachel Anne Barr, The Conversation

Rachel Anne Barr, PhD student, is currently pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience at Université Laval, Quebec.

The above passage is intended to capture many of the main points of Barr’s thought-provoking article. But of particular interest to me was the second sentence in the following paragraph, referencing a recent study published in Psychological Science

“Half of the participants reported a false memory for at least one fabricated event, with more than one third of participants reporting a specific, ‘eye-witness’ memory. In-depth analysis revealed that voters were most susceptible to forming false memories for fake news that closely aligned with their beliefs, particularly if they had low cognitive ability.”

Here is my subheading for that paragraph, particularly focused on the second sentence —

Those most susceptible to forming false memories HELD BELIEFS THAT WERE ALIGNED WITH THE FAKE NEWS, and were found to have LOW COGNITIVE ABILITY

In other words, people who have a confirmation bias to seek information that affirms their prior beliefs, and, in addition, those who do not have good independent, critical thinking abilities, are more likely to be influenced by fake news.  

Below is my repost of Rachel Anne Barr’s challenging article, challenging in the sense that she uses many terms and phrases that may be unfamiliar to the lay person, including, for example: neural basis of behavior; sensory neuroscience; sensory cortex; neural responses; dopamine; neurotransmitter; synaptic connections; plasticity process; substantia nigra/ventral segmental area; hippocampus; amygdala; and so on.

Therefore, in my repost, I have added subheadings expressed in more familiar terms, terms that hopefully capture the essence of Barr’s meaning.  My repost also includes an embedded video of the trailer Barr uses to provide a vivid example of the impact of fake news as a mechanism to distribute propaganda that influenced the outcome of the 2016 US election.

To read Barr’s original article, and to view the trailer for the documentary The Great Hack, click on the following linked title.

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Fake news grabs our attention, produces false memories and appeals to our emotions by Rachel Anne Barr, The Conversation, November 17, 2019

“Fake news” is a relatively new term, yet it’s now seen as one of the greatest threats to democracy and free debate. In the Netflix documentary The Great Hack — which chronicled the rise and fall of Cambridge Analytica — we saw how Facebook data was used to target potential voters with insidious right-wing propaganda packaged as if it were news.

The Great Hack trailer by Netflix, posted July 11, 2019 (2:27)

They took your data. Then they took control. The Great Hack uncovers the dark world of data exploitation through the compelling personal journeys of players on different sides of the explosive Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data scandal. Watch The Great Hack, Only on Netflix a –: https://www.netflix.com/TITLE/80117542

But how does fake news work? Neuroscience can provide at least some insight.

Grabbing attention

Fake news is framed to catch the attention of highly prejudiced supporters of a particular cause

The first job of fake news is to catch our attention, and for this reason, novelty is key. Psychologists Gordon Pennycook and David Rand suggested that one of the reasons hyperpartisan claims are so successful is that they tend to be outlandish. [*hyperpartisan claims are highly prejudiced claims made in support of a particular cause]

Human nature predisposes us to rapidly detect and respond to unexpected, novel information or events and ignore familiar stimuli

In a world full of surprises, humans have developed an exquisite ability to rapidly detect and orient towards unexpected information or events. Novelty is an essential concept underlying the neural basis of behavior, and plays a role at nearly all stages of neural processing. Sensory neuroscience has shown that only unexpected information can filter through to higher stages of processing. The sensory cortex may have therefore evolved to adapt to, to predict, and to quiet down the expected regularities of our experiences, focusing on events that are unpredictable or surprising. Neural responses gradually reduce each time we are exposed to the same information, as the brain learns that this stimulus has no reward associated with it.

The brain’s ability to create new connections is increased by the influence of novelty

Novelty itself is related to motivation. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward anticipation, increases when we are confronted by novelty. When we see something new, we recognize its potential for rewarding us in some way. Further studies show that the ability of the hippocampus to create new synaptic connections between neurons (a process known as plasticity) is increased by the influence of novelty. By increasing the plasticity of the brain, the potential for learning new concepts is increased.

Fake news, false memory

The regions of the brain that respond to novel stimuli also play important roles in learning and memory

The primary region involved in responding to novel stimuli — the substantia nigra/ventral segmental area or SN/VTA — is closely linked to the hippocampus and the amygdala, both of which play important roles in learning and memory. While the hippocampus compares stimuli against existing memories, the amygdala responds to emotional stimuli and strengthens associated long-term memories.

The brain has evolved to store highly emotional, provocative information in long-term memory

This aspect of learning and memory formation is of particular interest to my own lab, where we study brain oscillations involved in long-term memory consolidation. This process occurs during sleep, a somewhat limited time frame to integrate all of our daily information. For this reason, the brain is adapted to prioritize certain types of information. Highly emotionally provocative information stands a stronger chance of lingering in our minds and being incorporated into long-term memory banks.

Image of our brains

Exposure to propaganda may result in remembering this fake news, so reports one study

The allure of fake news is therefore reinforced by its relationship to memory formation. A recent study, published in Psychological Science, highlighted that exposure to propaganda may induce false memories. In one of the largest false-memory experiments to date, scientists gathered up registered voters in the Republic of Ireland in the week preceding the 2018 abortion referendum.

Moreover, consider this – Those most susceptible to forming false memories HELD BELIEFS THAT WERE ALIGNED WITH THE FAKE NEWS, AND were found to have LOW COGNITIVE ABILITY

Half of the participants reported a false memory for at least one fabricated event, with more than one third of participants reporting a specific, “eye-witness” memory. In-depth analysis revealed that voters were most susceptible to forming false memories for fake news that closely aligned with their beliefs, particularly if they had low cognitive ability.

Emotional appeals

The strongest selling point of fake news is its emotional appeal

The ability of fake news to grab our attention and then highjack our learning and memory circuitry goes a long way to explaining its success. But its strongest selling point is its ability to appeal to our emotions. Studies of online networks show text spreads more virally when it contains a high degree of “moral emotion,” which drives everything we do.

Human decision-making is often driven by subconscious deep-seat emotions

Decisions are often driven by deep-seated emotion that can be difficult to identify. In the process of making a judgment, people consult or refer to an emotion catalogue carrying all the positive and negative tags consciously or unconsciously associated with a given context.

We rely on our ability to place information into an emotional frame of reference that combines facts with feelings. Our positive or negative feelings about people, things and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, long before we’re aware of them. This processing operates with exposures to emotional content as short as 1/250th of a second, “an interval so brief that there is no recognition or recall of the stimulus.

Browsing emotionally provocative social media feeds can alter our perceptions and influence our political decisions

Merely being exposed to a fake news headline can increase later belief in that headline, so scrolling through social media feeds laden with emotionally provocative content has the power to change the way we see the world and make political decisions.

Moreover, the properties of these provocative feeds, in interaction with our memories, offset the brain’s analytical capabilities

The novelty and emotional conviction of fake news, and the way these properties interact with the framework of our memories, exceeds our brains’ analytical capabilities. Though it’s impossible to imagine a democratic structure without disagreement, no constitutional settlement can function if everything is a value judgement based on misinformation.

Absent a reliable perspective on reality, we are at the mercy of our brains’ more rudimentary processing

In the absence of any authoritative perspective on reality, we are doomed to navigate our identities and political beliefs at the mercy of our brains’ more basal functions. The capacity to nurture and sustain peaceful disagreement is a positive characteristic of a truly democratic political system.

But before democratic politics can begin, we must be able to distinguish between opinions and facts, fake news and objective truth.

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