Facebook, Satire, and Why People Fall for Fake News

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 20 2014 2:22 PM

Why Smart People Fall for Fake News

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Not a legitimate news source

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in Science of Us.

Earlier this week, Facebook announced a plan to start testing a “satire” tag, which you may soon find affixed to headlines like “Tips for Being an Unarmed Black Man” from sites like the Onion and ClickHole. And although on its surface, the move sounds a lot like a headline from the very satirical sites Facebook intends to warn its users of, the social-networking site may be on to something. 

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Because, as the Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey points out, this isn’t just about satire; it’s also about the problem of purposely false “news” stories. Lesser-known and less obviously joke-y sites like the Daily Currant, Empire News, National Report, and the News Nerd will get the “satire” tag, too. So this could actually be a step toward addressing the problem of hoaxes spreading wildly online, by cutting them off at what has become many people’s main source for news: Facebook.

What Dewey fails to mention, however, is that the Post itself fell for one of these satirical headlines just last year, citing a Daily Currant report that Sarah Palin was joining the news network Al-Jazeera America as a contributor. (She wasn’t.) Palin, for perhaps obvious reasons, is a recurrent figure in fake headlines that tend to trick real news outlets: In 2011, Rachel Maddow fell for a (fake) Christwire column calling for Palin to lead an American invasion in Egypt. About a week later, both Time and US Weekly reported on a fictitious fight Palin was supposedly trying to pick with Christina Aguilera over her botched lyrics to the National Anthem at the Super Bowl that year.

So, why do people—even smart people—fall for fake news? For one, it happens most when we’re not paying close attention, said Dannagal Young, an associate professor of communication at the University of Delaware. (Next month, Young will begin a study on irony comprehension.) “This isn't about ‘shortened attention spans,’” she said in an email to Science of Us. “This is about an overabundance of decontextualized snippets of info.” Facebook headlines and Tweets simply don’t consistently provide the cues one would need to distinguish weird news from fake news, “unless the [source] is consistently ironic,” Young said.

“Think about the drama over Colbert's ‘ching-chong ding-dong’ joke,” she continued. “That joke, in its original context, was ironic satire, juxtaposing the response of the Redskins' owner with an equally offensive and laughably racist gesture made by Colbert.  When Comedy Central tweeted it, without context, people were robbed of their ability to integrate non-verbal and context cues into their processing of the joke ... and they got pissed off. At Colbert. For being racist. Ahhhh, the irony!” 

Hudson Hongo has a bird's-eye view on all this joke-missing as curator of Literally Unbelievable, the Tumblr that catalogues the very sincere Facebook reactions from people who took an Onion headline seriously. He’s noticed that certain “official”-seeming words tend to fool people; for example, one of the Onion articles he saw the most reaction to last year was headlined, “Poll: Majority of Americans Approve of Sending Congress to Syria.” He says, “People just saw ‘poll,’ ‘majority’ and "Syria" and decided it was a story about how Americans wanted to go to war.”

Processing irony requires some complex juggling of new information with old information housed in your memory, all of it filtered through context cues, Young explained. And some people are simply less inclined to want to do that. “For example, people low in need for cognition—folks who tend to dislike thinking too much—would tend to favor simple, likely physical humor over more complex or text-based humor,” she said. “Next, people with a lower tolerance for ambiguity—who are uncomfortable with implicit or unstructured situations—would tend to favor humor that is explicit and unambiguous over that which is more nuanced, like irony.”

On a similar note, another common thread Hongo has noticed is something he calls “political wish fulfillment.” Sometimes, people just kind of want to believe the fake headline. “During the last election, lots of people believed the story ‘Obama: 'Help Us Destroy Jesus And Start A New Age Of Liberal Darkness' because it confirmed the insane things they had suspected all along,” he said. “Same thing with Planned Parenthood's infamous '$8 Billion Abortionplex,' which Literally Unbelievable caught a congressman posting as legitimate.”

Then again, sometimes the fake stories that catch on are unexplainable. “Right now, the story people are falling for is ClickHole's ‘5 Tragedies Weirdly Predicted By Adam Sandler,’” Hongo said. “So who even knows.”

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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