digital rhetoric

fake news and the distribution of critical thinking

Wired published an article a few days back based on this research from the journal Cognition. As the Wired article’s title suggests, if you want to be resistant to fake news then “don’t be lazy.” Basically this particular study indicates that people who exhibit critical thinking skills are more resistant to fake news than those who do not, regardless of ideological bent and regardless of whether the fake news favors them ideologically. Here’s the abstract to that article:

Why do people believe blatantly inaccurate news headlines (“fake news”)? Do we use our reasoning abilities to convince ourselves that statements that align with our ideology are true, or does reasoning allow us to effectively differentiate fake from real regardless of political ideology? Here we test these competing accounts in two studies (total N = 3446 Mechanical Turk workers) by using the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) as a measure of the propensity to engage in analytical reasoning. We find that CRT performance is negatively correlated with the perceived accuracy of fake news, and positively correlated with the ability to discern fake news from real news –even for headlines that align with individuals’ political ideology. Moreover, overall discernment was actually better for ideologically aligned headlines than for misaligned headlines. Finally, a headline-level analysis finds that CRT is negatively correlated with perceived accuracy of relatively implausible (primarily fake) headlines, and positively correlated with perceived accuracy of relatively plausible (primarily real) headlines. In contrast, the correlation between CRT and perceived accuracy is unrelated to how closely the headline aligns with the participant’s ideology. Thus, we conclude that analytic thinking is used to assess the plausibility of headlines, regardless of whether the stories are consistent or inconsistent with one’s political ideology. Our findings therefore suggest that susceptibility to fake news is driven more by lazy thinking than it is by partisan bias per se– a finding that opens potential avenues for fighting fake news.

It’s worth noting that these findings are somewhat inconsistent with other research (like this) which suggests that even when people demonstrate critical literacy/numeracy they tend to “use their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks.”

One thing that lies outside the scope of either of these pieces of research is how one acquires a capacity for the kind of critical-analytical thinking described here. Our received notions about this is that it is either innate (some people are just smarter than others) or learned. However, even in the learned case, our typical sense is that it’s kind of a one-shot deal or inoculation. E.g., you can learn critical thinking in high school and/or college, and once you have it you pretty much don’t lose it. However, we all know that isn’t true. If you’re drunk or tired or angry or excited or even just distracted, these “higher reasoning” skills suffer.

And I think I’ve just described the mental states of a significant portion of social media users while they’re on social media.

Both the Wired article and the researchers it cites moralize this situation by accusing those who fall prey to fake news of laziness (which is a mortal sin after all). Maybe. But that judgment fails to account for the media ecological conditions of social media, specifically its ubiquity/pervasiveness. It fails to account for its intentional design as an intrusive and addictive technology. So I say “maybe” as we can certainly ask more of one another when it comes to sharing fake news, and I think most people have become more skeptical in the last few years in regards to what they read online.

On the other hand, if one thinks about cognition as a distributed phenomenon then one would want to account for the media-ecological conditions that made social media such fertile ground for fake news and then ask how we might change those conditions. Clearly some of that is happening as social media corporations begin to own some modicum of responsibility here in terms of trying to detect and stop the spread of fake news. But I wonder if other strategies might not be possible. Namely, if we can design social media, smartphones, and related tech to incite our interactions with them, then can we also design them to facilitate a critical-analytical orientation? I’m not sure. It’s quite possible that those are irreconcilable intentions–simultaneously spurring our desire to engage while also encouraging a more deliberative approach to that engagement. For example, we might just decide “I don’t want to go on Facebook, Twitter, etc. right now because that’s too much work.”

Part of that challenge too is the see-saw of content. Just to give a quick example. I took a look at the first ten posts in my FB feed. 4 were personal updates. 3 were colleagues talking about their classes, asking advice, etc. 3 were articles shared, of which two were political news (one from USA Today and the other from Washington Post). I’m sure you get something similar, by which I mean that your rhetorical relationship to the author of the post and/or the content is shifting: family and old friends, work colleagues, neighbors, etc. and humorous videos/memes, personal news with varying emotional registers, interesting stories, advertising, political commentary, and news. You wouldn’t want to take the same critical-analytical orientation to each of these.

I’m just spitballing here but maybe we’d prefer to not have all this stuff in a single stream. Maybe with some intelligent digital assistant support we could split it up, so that when I’m interested in political news (and up for the responsibility of being a critical-analytical reader), I can dive into that feed, but that I’m not expected to be at my level best every time I idly turn to Facebook.



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