Expert Says Trump's 'Fake News Awards' Perpetuate Misinformation

The president's emphasis on "fake news" and his constant criticisms of the media makes it hard for Americans to distinguish fake from real news.
Posted at 1:05 PM, Jan 23, 2018

President Donald Trump has been very critical of some news organizations. And recently he announced his so-called Fake News Awards of 2017, citing specific stories from The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and others.

A majority of the listed news reports were since-corrected mistakes, and we wanted to see if the president's repeated emphasis on "fake news" has an impact. David Rand is an associate professor at Yale University and an expert on the cognitive science of fake news.

"I think a huge problem for people differentiating fake from real news is people not believing real news. And I think this is the place where Trump's war on the media is really a serious problem because he is undermining people's belief in real news, which makes them more susceptible to fake news because it's harder to tell the difference," Rand said. 

Rand defines fake news as "stories that are not true and that are purposely fabricated and circulated as if they were real."

Of course that doesn't include satire. But what if a journalist makes a mistake in his or her reporting and retracts it?

"When actual journalists are trying to report the truth get confused and say things that turn out to not be true, that's not fake news to us because it wasn't purposefully fabricated," Rand said. 

In his studies, Rand and his collaborator Gordon Pennycook found people who were analytical thinkers were less likely to fall for fake news.

"It is true that sometimes people believe fake news, but actually the bigger problem for most of our participants was not believing real news," he said. "We found that roughly 20 percent of the time, people will believe the fake news headline we showed them, ... but 40 percent of the time, they would make the opposite mistake and see something that's real and think it was actually fake."

Rand said seeing fake news headlines or reading fabricated sentences a few times can create a pervasive effect where you actually start believing it, regardless of what your biases are. It's called the illusory truth effect. According to the BBC, during his first year in office the president made 196 critical tweets about fake news and 147 mentions of specific outlets.

"We typically find that Republicans are worst at telling fake news from real news than Democrats," Rand said. "The difference isn't huge, but there is a clear statistical difference there, and a lot of that difference is driven by the Republicans being less likely to believe the real news. Which makes perfect sense when the Republican commander and chief is constantly telling people not to believe real outlets. I think this sort of thing that Trump is doing is really harmful and helps to perpetuate misinformation."

So with the massive influx of information from social media and television, how do we safeguard ourselves against fake news and misinformation?

He said: "If you want to protect yourself against fake news and misinformation more generally is you should think carefully about what's going on and what you're reading. And remember to ask yourself before you share something: Is this accurate?... It looks like in the context of fake news, it's much more that reasoning is used to inform our beliefs rather than to justify them. Our work seems to suggest that falling for fake news seems more about inattention than it is about willful ignorance."