Have you ever spotted someone ranting in the comments section below a political article on Facebook and thought to yourself, “man, I don’t think that guy has any idea what he’s talking about?”
Chances are, you were probably right.
Here in the United States, the phrase “fake news” has slowly become laden with political implications. Depending on who uses the term, it can mean anything from foreign disinformation efforts to bad journalism, or, as is increasingly the case, a story someone simply doesn’t like. Few things can put the credibility of a piece in question faster than offering up accusations of being “fake news,” and politicians on either side of the aisle are aware of the power of managed perceptions.
As an ironic result, media companies tend to lean into confirmation bias rather than away from it, seeking a solid market share of specific demographics they know their particular brand of reporting will appeal to. Fox News covets a conservative audience, CNN covets a liberal one, and they both pretend it’s only the competition that plays the game. It’s difficult to assess the direct and indirect effect the commercialization of the political divide will ultimately have on the American people, but a reasonable argument could be made that this trend, coupled with click-bait culture, has resulted in an American people that are confident that they know exactly what they’re talking about, and likely, have no idea — and there’s research to support that idea.
A recent study conducted by the PEW Research Center quizzed more than 5,000 American adults on their ability to differentiate between headlines that depict factual statements and political opinions. Chances are good that we all consider ourselves more than capable of reading the difference between the two as we scroll past the innumerable headlines we’re inundated with on a daily basis, but the figures depict a much more depressing state of American political affairs. Only about a fourth of all respondents were able to accurately differentiate between fact and opinion in all ten examples provided.
That means that 75% of American adults (if you extrapolate those 5,035 respondents to the total population) can be fooled by at least one out of every ten headlines they come across.
Breaking down those figures further, 26% of all adults were able to accurately identify five out of five fact-based headlines, and 35% were able to identify five out of five opinion-based ones. These headlines included loaded and tricky language like you might find in common media outlets, with a factual headline reading something like, “spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid make up the largest portion of the U.S. federal budget,” and opinion-based headlines reading like, “democracy is the greatest form of government.”
Ah, you may be thinking, but that’s your average Joe, and the circles I run in are full of well informed, politically minded thinkers… but the figures aren’t all that much better for those of us that think we’ve got our fingers on the pulse of national politics either. Among those that considered themselves to have a “high political awareness,” the statistics were only slightly better — with 36% of respondents correctly identifying 5 of 5 factual headlines and still fewer than half (44%) correctly spotting all five opinion pieces. Those who counted themselves as “digitally savvy” saw a similar spike in correct observations with 36 and 44 percent respectively.
Those who expressed limited trust in mainstream media were also about as capable as those who self-identified as politically savvy — with 39 and 43 percent respectively, still much higher than the average.
The study’s findings get even more disheartening when you take political affiliations into account. Per the study’s authors:
In addition to political awareness, party identification plays a role in how Americans differentiate between factual and opinion news statements. Both Republicans and Democrats show a propensity to be influenced by which side of the aisle a statement appeals to most. For example, members of each political party were more likely to label both factual and opinion statements as factual when they appealed more to their political side.
Put simply, both Democrats and Republicans are more likely to call opinions they agree with “facts.” That’s not just an issue with reading comprehension, it’s an issue with critical thinking. As Americans increasingly identify via their political affiliations, they are attributing less weight to factual headlines that clash with their political world views, and attributing increased credibility to the opinions of like-minded pundits.
For those working in the marketing and public relations industries, these findings may not come as all that surprising. Most marketing firms will tell you, it’s not about the actual value a customer gets when purchasing your product, the name of the game is perceived value. The difference between charging you ten dollars for a clear rock and ten thousand for a beautiful diamond is in your inherent understanding of the diamond’s cultural significance and rarity (both of which are arguably manufactured concepts introduced through a concerted marketing campaign).
Likewise, in politics, it doesn’t matter if something is true, what matters is if people believe it to be true. Foreign disinformation campaigns, like Russia’s now world-famous endeavors, trade on the same basic principles as marketing firms do: appeal to someone’s sense of identify and they’ll back fill the justifications.
Fake news, whether we like it or not, isn’t going to go away as long as it’s a profitable enterprise. Americans are increasingly growing disheartened with the state of news media, but the current response has been to seek shelter amid like-minded outlets rather than prizing objectivity — and we’re finding ourselves ill equipped with to maintain an accurate worldview as a result.
This problem isn’t without solutions — the first of which being a largely personal one. Be critical about loaded language, even when you find yourself nodding in agreement. Seek perspectives outside your own, and remember that disagreement doesn’t have to mean falling on opposing sides of a topic.
Because we all like to consider ourselves “smarter” than the average American but the word “average” means that at least half of us are not.