Berkley Forum

Fear and Fake News

Responding to Cognition of Belief

On his recent visit to the Middle East, President Trump bowed before the Saudi King.

Depending on your political convictions, Trump’s bow was likely either hypocritical or tragic. Trump, after all, had excoriated then-president Obama’s fitness for leadership for bowing to the Saudi King; liberals, therefore, accused Trump of hypocrisy. Conservatives, on the other hand, disgusted with Trump’s kowtowing to a Muslim leader and his concessive speech on Islam, thought his behavior a tragic betrayal of all they stood for and all he had run on.

I think, however, Trump’s bow is fake news. 

While Trump certainly bent over to receive a medal of honor from the much shorter King Abdulaziz al-Saud, he neither bowed (suggesting deference to a worthy) nor curtsied (suggesting effeminate behavior) as alleged. His entirely benign behavior was neither hypocritical nor tragic.

Memes of Trump’s “bow,” widely shared with derogatory comments on Facebook and Twitter, could very easily confirm one’s prior opinion of the president. As noted, liberals exulted in Trump’s hypocrisy, which Fox News equally vehemently denied.

Suppose that, in fact, Obama did bow before the Saudi king. In such a case, reports of his bowing, while true (non-fake), are not news. Surely it is perfectly acceptable, thus non-notable, for a visiting dignitary to take on the otherwise harmless customs of a country he or she is visiting. After all, “When in Rome….”

The non-news of Obama’s bowing likely confirmed, depending on one’s political predilections, either that Obama was a Muslim or that Obama was sensitively negotiating a strange land. 

Various media outlets thrive on fake news; others elevate non-news to news. In both cases, the media intend to instigate controversy in order to keep their readers’ eyes lingering just a bit longer on their webpages (and not on the pages of other media). The more readers that visit a webpage and the longer they stay, the more its owners can get for ad revenues. News, fake or not, is a business. Take away ad profits and the news withers away.

What draws us to a website is bad news—mass murders, natural disasters, suicide bombings, police shootings, and political scandals. War and terrorism are particularly attractive (though we are also quite fascinated with the Pitt-Jolie divorce and the public decline of Lindsay Lohan). According to some studies, stories of bad news outweigh stories of good news 17 to one.

The best explanation of our attraction to bad news may go deep into our evolutionary history. Our ancient ancestors, who faced widespread threats from both predators and people, were likely considerably more motivated by fear than delight. They surely weren’t unmotivated by delight (at the taste of good food, for example, or the birth of a child), but those who failed to instantly respond to dangers would have been eliminated from the gene pool. 

When I was a child, I felt a pin prick on my ankle as I was taking a walk with friends. I looked down, saw a snake, and jumped 10 feet into the air. After I landed, I shook my foot vigorously and threw off the snake. As it slithered away, I noticed that it was only about six inches long and thinner than a straw. I quickly identified it as a harmless garter snake, but it took many more minutes for my adrenalin-charged heart to calm down. 

My delight at being on a walk with friends was instantly overwhelmed by my evolutionarily-instilled fear of snakes. Instead of walking calmly, I jumped to safety.

Bad news, like snakes, plays to our fears.

Consider the fake news that Obama is a Muslim. This fake news plays to the fear that Obama is part of a secret pro-jihadist agenda that endorses the violent imposition of Islam and sharia on the world. If believed, Obama, like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, is enemy and should be resisted with all our might. Our way of life, indeed our very life, is at stake—if the fake news is true, and it is not.

The believing plot thickens when we understand how profoundly we protect our most deeply held beliefs by seeking out supporting evidence and ignoring or discounting counter-evidence.

If one acquires from fake news the belief that Obama is a Muslim, then every piece of fake news that plays to that fear is taken as confirming “evidence” while contrary truths are discounted or ignored. And every bit of fake news that “fits” with the original fake news is easily absorbed into one’s fear-based belief system, while contrary facts that don’t fit are discounted.

The false and fear-based belief that Obama is Muslim is easily supplemented, then, with the beliefs that he is a jihadist bent on the violent Islamification of the world.

Now add in the fake news that Islam hates us and the fake news that while not all Muslims are terrorists all terrorists are Muslims. These easily-acquired beliefs, based on fear-based fake news, exacerbate our fears, which in turn powerfully motivate our own violent responses to our “enemies”—Islam, Muslims, Arabs.

Thusly armed with false but highly motivational fear-based beliefs, we invaded Iraq on false pretenses (killing hundreds of thousands of innocent women and children), unleashed countless drones which themselves have killed countless innocent women and children, and prevented the emigration of millions of suffering and displaced Syrians from one of the worst humanitarian disasters in human history.

Fake news generates, expands, and confirms highly motivational but false and harmful beliefs. Fake news hurts real people in real time. Fake news creates enemies where they don’t exist, and fake news encourages violence against them.

Make no mistake—there is real news, some of it bad, about real enemies like ISIS and Al-Qaeda. They should be resisted with violence if need be.

But we should beware of our natural temptation to accede to our fears, to uncritically accept and then confirm fear-based false beliefs, and then to harm our fake enemies. After all, there are enough real enemies to worry about.

Other Responses
Seeking What Distinguishes Beliefs in the Human Brain

Seeking What Distinguishes Beliefs in the Human Brain
Jordan Grafman
May 31, 2017

 
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