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6 November 2017updated 19 Aug 2021 3:19pm

Fish food and fascism: what two viral stories in one morning tell us about fake news

While the left and the right have vastly different beliefs, we share the same cognitive biases that can lead to the spread of false news. 

By Amelia Tait

Depending on your political persuasion, one of two news stories will have caught your attention this morning. If you identify as liberal, or are in some way opposed to Donald Trump, you might have been outraged and amused that the 45th president committed an unceremonious faux pas by dumping a box of fish food into a precious koi pond during his trip to Japan. If you are on the far-right, you will have been appalled to discover that the perpetrator of yesterday’s Sutherland Springs shooting carried a flag linking him to the Antifa (anti-fascist) movement, and stated “this is a communist revolution” before murdering 26 people.

If it weren’t for one thing, these stories would have nothing in common. The severity and significance of each is vastly different, but they share one important trait. Neither is true. At the time of writing, the police haven’t commented on the Sutherland Springs shooter’s motive, and no mainstream news organisation has linked him to Antifa. As for Donald Trump, he only dumped his fish food after the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe did it first, a fact that was omitted from CNN’s edit of the video. 

Arguably, both of these stories spread an agenda – and both used social media to spread it. Although the motivations behind the stories are vastly and crucially different (the far-right’s lies capitalised on mass murder to sow political discord, while the left’s lies merely sought to embarrass President Trump), the way in which they both spread so far and so quickly reveals a lot about the present “fake news” phenomenon. The left and right’s politics might be vastly different, but their cognitive biases are essentially the same.

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“Fake news stories have to appeal to people. Just like tabloids and celebrity gossip, successful fake news stories often latch on to something that many people want to hear,” explains Gordon Pennycook, a researcher at Yale University who recently co-authored a paper on the type of people who fall for fake news. Yet although the writer of fake news might be politically motivated, Pennycook points out the reader might not. “The people who fall for political fake news are not necessarily the most partisan. Our research indicates that an overreliance on intuition and a lack of reflective or critical thinking plays an important role in people’s ability to discern fake and real news,” he says.

Troublingly for both left and right, it was high-profile figures who spread both of these fake news stories on Twitter this morning. Members of the far-right’s self-proclaimed new media, such as Mike Cernovich and Paul Joseph Watson, were quick to post rumours about the shooter, while traditional journalists such as Yashar Ali (of New York Magazine), as well as CNN’s Twitter account, were among the first to spread out of context images of Trump feeding the fish. It should be noted that Ali deleted his initial tweet and issued an apology when he realised his mistake.

Ali’s apology again highlights the difference between the perpetrators of these fake stories, and it is important to distinguish honest mistakes from deliberate disinformation. The spread of the Antifa rumour was clearly more dangerous than the spread of Trump’s fish feeding habits. Yet once again, regardless of motive, these stories spread in similar ways. In both instances, a handful of verified accounts allowed each story to gain prominence on the social network Twitter. The wide-reaching consequences of this were demonstrated this morning when Google’s “Popular on Twitter” function surfaced fake stories to people googling the Sutherland Springs shooter’s name.

“It’s important to note that our perceptions of fake news accuracy are influenced by the mere exposure to these headlines,” explains Pennycook, who carried out a study in April that demonstrated the repeat exposure to a piece of fake news – even when it is labelled as fake – means a person is more likely to believe it (this is called the illusory-truth effect). “This occurs because humans use familiarity as a way to judge accuracy.” It is easy to see how this bias worked today on Twitter, where filter bubbles meant people saw the same stories in their feeds again and again.

Ali’s correction also highlighted another known phenomenon around fake news: lies spread faster than the truth. Although the journalist took pains to delete his initial viral tweet, his apology tweet hasn’t received as many retweets on the site. This might be rectified by the fact that Twitter itself has created a “Moment” (a curated collection of stories that are popular on Twitter) clarifying the Trump non-incident, after other journalists (such as Buzzfeed’s political editor Jim Waterson) called out the story as fake.

This is the other crucial difference between today’s fake news stories. While both fake stories exploited real news events for political or personal gain, there is more apparent self-policing on the left. Still, it is once again important to distinguish those who genuinely fall for, versus those who create, fake news. In general it is important to not assume either left or right has intellectual superiority when it comes to falling for fake news. As Kim LaCapria, a political writer at the internet’s oldest fact-checking website, Snopes, told me after the inauguration of Donald Trump: “There has always been a sincerely held yet erroneous belief misinformation is more red than blue in America, and that has never been true.”

Both sides can now use each instance of fake news to create more news. The notorious far-right site Breitbart has already run a story decrying CNN for misleadingly cropping the video of Trump feeding the fish. Right Wing Watch, a website “dedicated to monitoring and exposing the activities and rhetoric of right-wing activists and organizations in order to expose their extreme agenda” has run a story listing those on the far-right who spread misinformation about the shooter. Today, both the far-left and far-right can accuse the other of spreading fake news, ultimately bolstering their hatred of one another.