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  • Writer's pictureJustin McBrayer

Can You Spot Fake News?

The answer to the question is "only sometimes." Further, the vast majority of us are worse at it than we think, and those of us who are the least skilled in picking out fake news have the most unrealistic beliefs about how good we are. There's an old saying that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. As it turns out, that adage applies to the consumption of news, too.

We know this because of a clever study recently published in the National Academy of Sciences. The study is full of all sorts of interesting findings (for example, Republicans are more likely to fall for fake news than Democrats), but the main thrust is that most of us think we're better at spotting fake news than we really are AND those of us who are the least compenent in identifying misinformation and disinformation are the most likely to have innaccurate and inflated judgments about our abilities.

These findings are particular instances of two more general cognitive biases: the Lake Wobegon Effect and the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It's yet one more piece of the fake news puzzle: our hard-wired mental "short-cuts" help to explain the current fake news epidemic.

Let's start with the first point: most of us think that we're better at spotting fake news than we really are. In fact, the study shows that roughly 75% of us are too confident in our ability to sort true headlines from false ones. In fact, 90% of us think that we're better than average. That's an instance of a cognitive bias called the Lake Wobegon Effect: humans routinely overestimate our skills. Obviously, 90% of us can't be better than average when it comes to spotting fake news!

It's easy to demonstrate this bias. Ask people how likely they are to spot fake headlines and then give them a test. If they say they can do it 90% of the time and yet only identify fake headlines 60% of the time, then they have overstated their abilities.

We could then rank people in terms of their ability to discern the true from the false. Suppose we had 100 people, and we ordered them frm 1 being the worst and 100 being the best. Where would you put yourself? The study shows that, on average, we will rank ourselves 22 spots ahead of where we actually are (!!). That's the Lake Wobegon Effect in action.

Consider the next point: the least competent among us is likely to be the most confused about how skilled he is at spotting fake news. This is the result of a cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This effect describes the fact that the most incompetent people are also the most likely to overstate their abilities. As the original researchers Dunning and Kruger put it, incompetent people lack the skills to tell whether they are skilled or not, and this ignorance leads them to overstate their abilities. For example, if you know little about golf, it will be easy for you to overstate your ability to make a certain putt. If you know a lot about golf, your self-assessment is more likely to be grounded in reality (though still inflated--see the Lake Wobegon Effect).

As applied to the fake news study, the people who earned the lowest scores on the fake news test also give themselves high marks for their ability to sort the true from the false. Going back to our line of 100 people, the people who are on the low end of the scale (say, 1-10) will rank themselves MORE than 22 spots ahead of where they actually are (!!). That's the Dunning-Kruger effect in action.

The problem, of course, is that these cognitive biases play naturally into the fake news crisis. Most of us think we're better at spotting fakes than we actually are AND those of us who are the least able are relatively more confident of our abilities. As the researchers conclude, "The individuals who are least equipped to identify false news content are also the least aware of their own limitations and, therefore, more susceptible to believing it and spreading it further."

The upshot is that the epistemically rich get richer while the epistemically poor get poorer. Those with high abilities in sorting the false from the true will be more likely to accurately judge their abilities and ultimately navigate towards reliable information. Those with low abilities in sorting the false from the true will be less likely to accurately judge their abilities and will consume and share relatively more fake news.

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