Posts Tagged ‘Snopes’

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The Phenomenon

The “fake news” phenomenon plays on highly predictable and prevalent weaknesses in human cognition: confirmation bias, ownership/endowment effects, and belief overkill using messages with high affective valence, usually negative. Emotions of fear, outrage, and suspicion typically are featured, but sometimes positive themes are used too, like appeals to feelings of patriotism or nostalgia for an idealized past. The images selected typically reflect whatever the emotional focus is, or whoever (or whatever, in the case of abstract institutions) is the target of that focus. There is no attempt at truthful communication. Sources are often described rather than named (think pizzagate’s “New York City police detective”, or phrases like “sources close to the Trump family”). Essentially, fake news stories follow the same sort of style as tabloid writing: sensationalistic, unverifiable, and over-the-top claims are made about publicly recognizable figures for money. That’s nothing new. Tabloid journalism has been around since papers started being printed. What’s “new” about fake news is that:


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Upon opening my e-mail this morning I found a forward of this article from the New York Times on the popular fact-checking website snopes.com. I found the article interesting for more than a few reasons.

What has always fascinated me about Snopes is how it evolved organically online out of a felt need for objectivity. Since the beginning the web has always been a fertile breeding ground for rumors, urban legends and half-truths, and people (who I think are more sophisticated than we often believe) know this.  They are well aware of the multiple, conflicting biases that color the information they find online.  They know that these biases can lead to slanting and distortion, and to some degree they expect it.  For those who are not simply looking for confirmation of their own viewpoints, this is a problem.  Simply knowing that bias abounds on the web, however, is not a sufficient defense.  People with this kind of interest don’t want just any story, they want the story.  They want to know what really happened.  The multiple, conflicting accounts available online don’t tell them that.  The result is that people who want to use the web for information gathering purposes have to have some way of sifting the facts out of the voluminous chaff of rumor, exaggeration, and partisan cheerleading in which they lay hidden.

Enter Snopes, which as the article explains, evolved into its role as a “fact-checking” site.  (It did not start out that way.)  Nevertheless, it is now regarded by many as an authority on which stories are and are not credible on the web.

To my mind two things stand out from the article. The first is this quote:

For the Mikkelsons, the site affirms what cultural critics have bemoaned for years: the rejection of nuance and facts that run contrary to one’s point of view.

“Especially in politics, most everything has infinite shades of gray to it, but people just want things to be true or false,” Mr. Mikkelson said. “In the larger sense, it’s people wanting confirmation of their world view.”


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