In the aftermath of last week’s election, the media has been actively looking for someone to blame for President Elect Donald Trump.  Cultural blowback against Grubhub CEO, Matt Maloney, for sending out a company wide e-mail suggesting that Donald Trump supporters resign their positions within his company has demonstrated that a large percentage of Americans are aware that Trump didn’t win the election due to a strictly racist and misogynistic voting population.  Instead of acknowledging that Hillary Clinton may not have been a particularly electable candidate, a number of outlets have taken to blaming Facebook.  Specifically, the fake news stories that are frequently shared by Facebook’s users.

The theory is not without precedent.  Forty-four percent of Americans say that they do get at least some of their news from the social media platform, and Facebook admits to conducting experiments to gauge the effect different content has on its user base.  In 2010, Facebook conducted an experiment in which they showed sixty-one million users one of two messages encouraging Americans to vote in the primaries.  One group was shown a simple message suggesting that they go vote, while the other group was shown the same message, with the addition of profile pictures of friends that had indicated that they voted.  By comparing their user information to public voter polls, Facebook determined that the people that saw the different presentation of the “go vote” message that included their friends were significantly more likely to go vote in the primary themselves.

In 2012, Facebook conducted another experiment in which they intentionally showed one large group of users only negatively toned content and another group only “upbeat” posts.  They found, once again, that those shown negatively toned content were significantly more likely to post negative content themselves, and vice versa.  Earlier this year, Facebook was under fire for intentionally censoring conservative news stories from their trending news feature.  Despite disputing these claims, Facebook switched to an algorithm to create trending news topics, instead of a team that’s capable of intentional or unintentional bias.

This algorithm, however, has made it easier than ever for fake news stories to appear in the “trending” section of user’s platforms, but is Facebook really to blame for the amount of fake news stories shared throughout their site?  At what point does the responsibility transfer away from the user to exercise a critical eye and onto the platform itself?

The real issue is psychological, not political.  Human brains evolved without an internet’s worth of knowledge available at our fingertips, so when presented with the insurmountable influx of information we now have available, our brains struggle to keep up.  Our two primary psychological defense mechanisms tie directly to the issue of fake news on social media: confirmation bias and source amnesia.

Confirmation bias speaks to our inherent desire to find information that supports our pre-existing positions on a subject.  If you believe Donald Trump to be a successful businessman, you are more likely to find and agree with articles that support that position.  If you believe Trump is an anti-Semite, you’ll likely scroll right past the article discussing his business acumen and instead hone in on an article about the KKK endorsing his candidacy for president.  Both stories may be accurate and factual (or neither of them) but you will subconsciously assign more credibility to the article that agrees with your political bias.

Source amnesia plays an even more vital role in the effect sharing fake news on social media outlets such as Facebook can have.  In effect, source amnesia speaks to our brains inability to retain everything we read, so it chooses only the portions that seem important to recall.  A classic example of source amnesia might be the knowledge that Paris is in France.  You know it to be true, though you likely don’t recall where you learned it.  The human brain is forced to make the distinction between what’s important to retain and what isn’t, and more often than not, you brain will favor the fact, rather than the source.

This becomes a complicated issue online.  Six out of ten adult Americans admit that they rarely read past the headlines in social media or on news sites, instead gleaning what they can as they scroll by.  If you happen to spot an article with a bold headline that supports your existing position (confirmation bias) you are more likely to recall what the headline said, but unlikely to recall where you saw it or whether or not the source was credible (source amnesia).  Two weeks later, you may recall that headline as a fact you know to be true, though you can’t quite recall where you learned it.