Fake News 101: Why do we believe this stuff?

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you missed part 1 of the series on the basics of fake news, you can read it here. -VFF

The term “fake news” gets thrown around the way the word “internet” used to be thrown around: Everyone is using it, dealing with it and thinking it’s something it’s actually not. For the sake of this post, we’re going to define “fake news” as content posted that the authors know to be false with the intent of fooling readers into believing it to be real.

If you think about it that way, the questions that come into focus are simple even as their answers are complex:

  • Who posts this kind of content and why do they do it?
  • Why do we believe the stuff, especially the really outlandish stuff?
  • What can we do to stop its spread or at least its impact?

This is part two of a three-part series discussing each of these questions in hopes of helping you get a stronger handle on this topic. Today’s post looks at why fake news works and why we get suckered.

It’s hard to think of much that makes you feel dumber than falling for a news hoax, especially if you shared the content and then get called out for it. The reason we fall for these fake stories range from having more access to a wider array of outlandish activity to seeing information that confirms our preconceived notions. Consider these reasons why fake news can feel pretty real sometimes:



I’m not entirely sure if we are more weird than we were at previous points in time, or if we just know more about it because we have access to a wider array of news sources. It used to be, we had a few local weirdos and that was it. Now, we have access to a world of weird, and there are some real hot pockets of weird out there.

If you type the phrase “Florida man” into a Google search, you will find an amazing array of odd and criminal behavior.

Not only is “Florida Man” a meme now, but a baseball team hosted a “Florida Man Night” in which a law was broken each inning. And keep in mind, this is just one state and one set of weirdness. Out here, a radio station used to have a daily “Weird-Ass Sheboygan County Story Of The Day” named after a county in which it seemed we couldn’t keep the most ignorant among us out of the news.

When you think about all these stories, is it any wonder that we’ve become kind of used to hearing strange behavior, odd crimes or other insanity and think, “Yeah, that tracks…”

Consider the following posts that appeared on various sites online:

Unlawful Raccoon


Florida Dog Sex


Florida Shitter



Salsa Testicles

These all seem in one sense completely unrealistic while at the same time totally plausible. Two of them are true stories while the other two are completely made up and I’d make it a 6-5 bet that you couldn’t accurately distinguish the true from the false without looking on the internet. (If you want to know if “salsa guy,” “traffic pooper,” “animal sex guy” or “raccoon man” are legit stories, click on each link.)



The second reason we fall for this comes down to the idea of stereotyping and the concept of confirmation bias. With so many of us finding ways to sit in our news bubbles and not look elsewhere for content that might not align with our point of view, it becomes easy to create stereotypes and look for things that confirm them.

If you think President Donald Trump is a great guy and you read nothing but news about how great he is, it stands to reason that you might get sucked in on a fake news story that says he was endorsed by the pope. Or one that says he rescued a kitten from a tree. On the other hand, if you think the president is a racist, a liar and a cheat (to quote Michael Cohen’s testimony), you could easily find yourself believing a far-less-than-truthful story that said he plans to bring back the word “Negro” as a descriptor for African-Americans.

In 2017, Scott Pelley investigated the fake news phenomenon for “60 Minutes” and found a frightening world of news scams bent on pitting people against each other for sport and profit. One website garnered an audience of more than 150 million viewers publishing headlines like “Hillary Clinton Has Parkinson’s Disease, Physician Confirms.” (The story was based on the claims of a doctor who never met Clinton and was later denied by Clinton’s own doctor and officials from the National Parkinson Foundation.) The people who published this site tended to lean toward political hackery because they found that more people were willing to click on stories like the Clinton one. A large part of this was because people disliked the politicians who were the subjects of these stories and thus they were willing to read anything that painted the pols in a negative light.


Con artists, scammers and other peddlers of hoaxes are nothing new in this world. People swore they had seen the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot. Others claimed they could sell you a medicine to cure your ills or a controlling stake in the Brooklyn Bridge. What makes today’s cons more problematic for us is the volume of lies purporting to be truths and the speed at which they spread throughout society. Even more, the fraudsters are getting much better at their frauds and we are getting much worse at defending ourselves.

With so much money at stake, due to these clickbait farming operations, the con artists are rewarded for coming up with the best possible cons available. They invest in making sure the URL for their work looks legitimate, as opposed to a .blog.weblog.blogging.users.com link of some kind. They use the same types of software to manipulate photos and videos that professional filmmakers and journalists use to improve and enhance images. They add links to other stories that also look official to beef up their sense of credibility with willing readers and viewers.

Even more, they have access to reputable news sites from around the world, thus allowing them to study what these folks do and mimic it down to the tiniest of details. The differences here are astounding in getting people to buy into their messages. It’s the difference between going to a jewelry store at the mall where someone cons you into buying a fake Rolex  and buying one from the guy on the street who has a dozen of them linked to the inside of his coat.

We, unfortunately, have gotten worse at detecting this stuff and defending ourselves against it.

Part of it isn’t our fault: If someone has gone to such great lengths to put on the perfect con, it’s not like we necessarily should have seen it coming. Between Enron, Tyco and the guy who almost bought the New York Islanders, a lot of smart people have gotten really suckered by people who managed to outsmart them.

It also doesn’t help that we’re no longer getting a steady stream of information like we once did: We’re getting drilled from every angle with a fire hose of content. When that happens, no matter how good you are at ducking and dodging, you’re gonna get soaked.

Still, technology has provided us with such easy options to get content from anywhere and share it with anyone without giving it much thought. As the human mind is a cognitive miser, it pretty much tells us to take the path of least resistance and just move stuff along. With a simple click of the mouse, it’s done.

(Hey, there’s a reason why PayPal, Amazon, eBay and hundreds of other folks are more than happy to make online shopping as simple as possible. If you had to stop at a site, get your credit card, fill out a form, email it in, wait for confirmation and then finalize a purchase, you might think twice about needed another windbreaker jacket in a slightly less maroon than the other three you already own. Thinking cuts into profits.)

In many ways, being accurate, researching the information and feeling informed before deciding to buy into the content and show it to other people is no longer important to people, by and large. If it sounds right, looks right and says what I believe to be true, it’s fine, right? If I turn out to be wrong, well, it’s not like I’m going to admit it, and I’m sure I can find another article that will support my position.

In short, we lack a penalty for not doing what we should do to make sure we aren’t getting fooled. The risk/reward balance is out of whack, so people don’t really need to worry about what happens when they share fake news.

For those of us who do worry, there are ways to fend off the fake stuff.

Tomorrow: What can we do to fend off fake news?

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