Behavioral sciences are showing great promise as the answer to such a nuanced and widespread problem. What remains to be seen is how much of an effect it can have in the long term.

When was the last time you saw a piece of fake news? That question is more difficult to answer than you might think. Although nearly everyone has heard of fake news, identifying it—and more importantly combating it—is quite complex.

But that’s not to say it’s impossible. The war against misinformation is just heating up and it turns out its greatest ally could be behavioral sciences.

Where did it come from?

Most people became aware of fake news in the run up to the 2016 US presidential election—and its reported impact on the outcome. It was around this time that the term “fake news” became more widely used and popularized by President Trump himself. But that isn’t to say the idea is anything new.

Propaganda and yellow journalism have long been used to influence groups of people in certain ways. In fact, you could say that fake news goes all the way back to ancient times. So, what’s changed?

Two words: social media. The rise of social media has been one of the most incredible instances of democratization the world has ever seen. Suddenly, everyone has a platform to express their opinion, exactly when they feel like it. This has many upsides, which are too often overlooked.

But, of course, it also allows fake news to flourish.

The reason fake news works

There’s no great mystery as to why fake news begins in the first place. Whether in the form of government-controlled bots seeking to destabilize a country’s political system, clickbait articles looking for revenue, or simple trolls who get a kick out of controversy, spreading misinformation has obvious benefits for certain groups of people. What’s less obvious is why it works.

Your own brain

Unfortunately, the hardwiring of your brain is partly to blame. Remember how we said that social media is the great democratizer? Well, the result is that there are simply too many sources of information to choose from. It used to be that a few established media outlets were in control of the vast majority of the news we consumed. Now, extensive media pluralism is the norm.

Imagine you’re in a market and there are a thousand people trying to sell you a thousand different things. There’s so much noise and confusion, how do you make a choice? You do two things: you filter by the items you like (aka your bias) and whoever draws the most attention.

Filtering by bias

You largely decide in advance where you source all your information from—whether from the traditional newspapers you prefer, internet celebrities you admire, or even the friends you keep online. This leads to a sort of echochamber, where you repeat the type of content that’s similar to the group you’re a part of. As a result, fake news can be bounced around between members without anyone realizing what they’re consuming is untruthful. In fact, in a 2016 poll, 14% of Americans knowingly spread fake news within their groups because it benefitted their political affiliation.

However, in the same poll 23% admitted to having done it either on purpose or otherwise. There are many reasons people can accidentally share misinformation, but one of them is the illusory truth effect. Quite simply, if something is repeated enough, it begins to seem true. So, if all your friends share a piece of fake information on Facebook or other social media, it begins to look plausible.


Got your attention!

Apart from your natural bias, anything that appears different or surprising to us naturally draws us in. Fake political news doesn’t just get shared—it gets shared three times as quickly as factual news. Whenever we see something that is novel, it grabs our attention and even aids in our decision-making processes. This, combined with our social need to appear “in the know”, is a recipe for spreading misinformation.

Behavioral sciences to the rescue

Since much of its success comes from hacking the human brain, behavioral sciences can also hold the answer to stopping the spread of fake news. Step up the Pro Truth Pledge project. While the spread of misinformation is based on exploiting biases and grabbing attention, combating it involves another behavioral quirk—we want to be seen as truthful.

The Pro Truth Pledge is a nonprofit developed by scientists from The Ohio State University and the University of Pennsylvania. The idea is simple, asking people to promote honesty by sticking to 12 behaviors that lead to truthfulness. These can include fact checking information before sharing it, using sources, asking people to not share false information, and encouraging the use of reliable news outlets.

After ten months, the researchers decided to evaluate if it has helped curb the spread of misinformation. To do so, they conducted two studies comparing the Facebook posting habits of people who took the pledge. The results showed positive results overall and represents an important first step in tackling one of the most important and tricky issues of the modern era.

Behavioral sciences are showing great promise as the answer to such a nuanced and widespread problem. What remains to be seen is how much of an effect it can have in the long term.