All the News That Fits Is Printed.

            Why do people believe nonsense?[1]  One answer might be that people operate in an environment of nothing but nonsense.  They don’t have any choice.  Obviously, that’s not the case today, at least in Western-style democracies with public education systems, a free press, modern medicine, economies based on science and technology, and a general celebration of human reason.  These institutions churn out immense amounts of “sense.” 

            Another answer might be that people filter information according to their group identity.  According to sociologists and psychologists, people always have some sense of belonging to a sub-group of society, their “in-group.”  It is a basic evolutionary survival strategy.  That sense of group identity can vary with the larger social and political context.  In a period of dramatic change or conflict, those larger events can intensify the sense of belonging to an in-group.  Belonging can strengthen one’s sense of security when the person feels embattled by hostile forces.  “News” about whatever forces or groups that are seen as threatening the in-group can become one of the shared elements reinforcing group identity. 

            Word of mouth communication of “news” provides validation.  External or authoritative repetition of the “news” provides an even stronger validation.  On the one hand, when that “news” is voiced or sponsored by a major public figure, then it seems more plausible still.  It gains credibility from being stated by a public figure.  It also expands the reference community of the “in-group” beyond local acquaintance.  On the other hand, media exposure and endorsement of the “news” lends further credibility while massively expanding awareness of it.  Social media has become a particular concern because of the feed-back from “likes” and “shares” provides an affirmation to the person who posts some bit of the “news.” 

            Taken together, “in a highly polarized society,” these factors “pull heavily toward in-group solidarity and out-group derogation.  They do not much favor consensus reality or abstract ideals of accuracy.”  In the context of contemporary American politics, this is concerning. 

            It’s possible that the cause for concern is real, but that both the degree of danger and the novelty of the situation are over-stated.  In 1678 Titus Oates cooked up the story of a “Popish Plot” to kill British King Charles II.  He accused the Jesuits and a long list of prominent Catholics.  The government investigated and the list of accused people grew.  Then the magistrate investigating the charges was found murdered.  You can imagine the television reports, if there had been television in the 17th Century: “New Plot by the ‘Scarlet Whore of Rome’!”; “Jesuit Secret Agents at Work in England!”; “Catholics Are Traitors!”  The accusations played into all the fears and prejudices of ordinary Englishmen after a century of domestic and foreign conflict.  Parliament took up the cause, forcing the king—who suspected the whole thing was a crock—to allow Oates to continue.  At least fifteen innocent men were executed for participation in the “Popish Plot.”  By 1681, tempers had begun to calm down.  Just as quickly as people had believed in the plot, they suddenly disbelieved in it. 

            So why are “misinformation” and “fake news” such an urgent issue now?  Perhaps it’s because, in America’s polarized politics, both “in-groups” feel under assault; prominent figures sound the alarm; and every corner of the media is filled with passionate intensity.  Or maybe not. 


[1] Max Fisher, “In an Us-Versus-Them World, Misinformation Reigns,” NYT, 10 May 2021.