Consider this fictional encounter between a mother and her teenage son.
Mom: “Hey Billy. I just received a call from your English teacher. She says you have not been doing your homework in preparation for class.”
Billy: “Don’t listen to her. That’s ‘fake news’. Who are you going to believe that loser teacher or your loving son?”
Who should Mom believe?
Is “fake news” really fake?
Recently we have added new words to our lexicon such as “fake news” and “alternative facts”. The proliferation of social media such as Twitter and Facebook allows erroneous claims to spread really fast. These erroneous claims can easily be interpreted as “truth” when the information confirms one’s preexisting beliefs. This phenomenon is called “confirmation bias”. Given that bias, fake news instigators thrive on stoking their followers’ confirmatory bias.
In today’s highly politically charged environment, there are many “camps of opinion” that hold their beliefs to be right and others, with different beliefs, to be wrong. The “camps” are preoccupied with building arguments using selective “facts” to support their assertion of “truth” and that “prove” the other wrong. When people with opposing views interpret information in a biased way, their views can move even further apart. Many of us are so attached to our beliefs that those beliefs can survive logical challenges.
Selective Listening and Recall
Most of us have some form of confirmation bias. It is really hard to be neutral in all matters. Our beliefs are formed through our life experiences which differ from person to person. When news or statements resonate with our experience, we are likely to believe them to be true regardless of whether they are actually true or not. Confirmation bias also affects how we listen to others. We often filtering out those parts of a conversation that are not aligned with our biases and pay attention to those parts with which we agree. This is called “selective listening”. Even when two individuals have the same information, their interpretation of the information can be biased, or they may later remember information selectively to reinforce their current beliefs. This effect is called “selective recall”.
Truth about the “Post Truth Era”
Yes, it seems like there is a proliferation of “fake news” today. One’s declaration of “fake news” may however resonate with another’s beliefs. It is our personal responsibility to recognize our biases as we distinguish real truths from personal beliefs. In doing so, we can move from judging others as “right or wrong” to debating differing opinions.
Getting back to Mom’s dilemma:
Mom to Billy: “Yes, you are my loving son and I love you. Do your homework!”