The end of the world is fake news

Bullshit, fake news and conspiracy theories: where do we find the truth in our daily information garbage? And do they even exist?

Facts are nice, but sometimes they don't fit your worldview. Those who spread fake news may not be against the truth at all - they just don't care.

The year 2016 will go down in media history as the turning point at which the triumphant advance of digital fake news began. In Great Britain, the Brexit supporters influenced the referendum in their favor with falsified numbers and targeted disinformation. The 2016 election campaign in the USA between Trump and Clinton also had a new quality, as the news site Buzzfeed demonstrated, which compared the twenty most-shared fake news from conspiracy-theoretic websites with the twenty most popular reports from the New York Times and CNN. The result: the fake news received more clicks than the serious news.

At first glance, you might think that most British and Americans don't care about the truth. Some cultural diagnosticians have even proclaimed the so-called post-factual age, in which facts no longer play a role in politics. In fact, fake news is not primarily about truth, but above all about morality. When people falsify and spread news, they almost always have a motivation: They want to confirm their moral worldview or to discredit everything that contradicts this worldview as "lying press".

Therefore, fake news is only limited to a small part of the news. Nobody spreads fake news about the lottery numbers or shouts “lying press” when the daily news reports that Angela Merkel was at the G20 summit. Only topics that concern moral identity have what it takes to become tangible fake news, something that makes people identify as “leftists”, “rights”, “vegans” or “opponents of vaccinations”. Moral emotions represent a strong drive: disgust for everything that is strange or fear for one's own health and, above all, that of the children. Therefore, a large part of the fake news revolves around topics such as immigration or nutrition and vaccination myths.

How to make a fool of yourself

There are three types of truth deniers on the internet. The liar is telling untruth willfully. The bullshitter (a technical term from the philosopher Harry Frankfurt) often also has a political agenda, but only approves of the untruth. He spreads what suits him. He doesn't care whether it turns out to be true or false. The third type is most common: the idiot who clicks on all the nonsense, gives likes and shares. The idiot really cares about the facts, but he is negligent with the truth because he passes on information unchecked. If there weren't that many idiots, fake news would be a marginal phenomenon.

But who are these people who become liars and bullshitters? And why can you make a fool of yourself on the net so quickly? There are now revealing studies on these questions. The American psychologist Charles Lord carried out experiments on the moral identity of people as early as the late 1970s. To this end, he presented his test subjects with supposed scientific articles on the effect of the death penalty. In fact, the results were fictitious, which the test subjects did not know.

One test group learned that the death penalty led to a reduction in crime, while the other group found that the death penalty had no effect. The result was amazing. Conservative advocates only considered those results plausible that demonstrated the death penalty to have a deterrent effect, not those that found no effect. With the liberal opponents of the death penalty it was exactly the opposite, although the two groups did not differ in other respects. The test subjects were not concerned with the facts, but rather with preserving their moral identity: They wanted the central values ​​of their political group to be confirmed at all costs.

Who made the earth?

The American psychologist Dan Kahan recently showed that this tribal thinking is so deeply rooted in us that not even people who are particularly confident with statistics are immune to wrong conclusions. His paradoxical result: the more astute his subjects were, the more they were prone to misinterpretations. For example, when it came to the politically charged issue of gun ownership, number-savvy Republicans interpreted any statistic as if freely available guns helped reduce crime. With the mathematically gifted Democrats, it was exactly the opposite, no matter which numbers were available to both groups. These "identity-protecting thinking errors" are even more lasting than the usual short circuits in logical thinking.

So the susceptibility to tribalism and the production of fake news are the passive and active sides of the same coin. With both, people try to maintain and protect their self-image, either unconsciously and automatically through selective perception or actively and deliberately through lies and bullshit. But why do some people go one step further, sit down at home on a sunny Sunday in front of their computers and compose photos from the Internet in order to spread fake news about Arab knifers? And why do others share these fakes, even though every schoolchild can expose them with just a few clicks?

Anyone who bends the world the way they like it sends a clear signal of loyalty to those who like them: "Belonging to the group is more important to me than the truth." This tribal thinking is known from another context, namely the religious one. Nowhere else has fairytale fake news persisted for thousands of years. An example: Among the educated university graduates in the USA, at least 27 percent believe in creationism, i.e. that the earth was created by God about 6,000 years ago.

Anyone who believes fake news is no longer alone

However, post-factual thinking is not a universal phenomenon, but rather widespread on the right-wing fringes of the political spectrum. This is shown by a recent study of fake news on Twitter during the 2016 election campaign in the USA. The “supersharers”, who shared an extremely large amount, only made up one percent of the providers, but were responsible for 82 percent of the fake news that was circulated. Opposed to them are the “super consumers”, one percent of all users who, however, received 74 percent of all fake messages. In other words: even if all internet users get fake news every now and then, most of the music plays in a tiny, but booming, echo chamber.

However, the fake news producers are by no means evenly distributed across the political spectrum: In the USA, the left and the moderate center rarely spread fake news. On the far right, false reports are shared six times as often by those conservatives who fear Mexican immigrants, despise liberals in the coastal cities, and who are largely Trump voters. The fake news about Brexit was also often about fear of immigrants, such as workers from Turkey. And the fake news in German-speaking countries in the last four years has mainly affected refugees or, as a representative, Islam.

However, fake news is only the most obvious example of ideologically motivated lies and bullshit that multiply on the internet. Conspiracy theories follow a similar pattern. It has always existed, too, but those who believe in lizard people, chemtrails or Zionist world domination are no longer socially isolated, but can exchange ideas with like-minded people in a global echo chamber. Conspiracy theories often arise from a feeling of powerlessness, but at their core they also revolve around the moral identity of a group, albeit in the form of diffuse criticism of the elite.

In addition to outrageous lies and conspiracy theories, bullshit naturally takes many other forms in our culture: These include the plastic words of large corporations such as “impact” and “sustainability”, the manipulation of images and words in marketing and advertising, and technocratic prose politics, the oath of some humanities and social scientists as well as the pseudo profound wisdom of the life coaches. All these types of bullshit have one thing in common: They keep us from thinking clearly. In the end, you can only protect yourself from it: through vigilance and reflection. This is why bullshit resistance is a cardinal virtue of the 21st century.

The philosopher Philipp Huebl has taught in Aachen, Berlin and most recently at the University of Stuttgart. Bertelsmann has just released his new book “Die aufgeregte Gesellschaft. How emotions shape our morals and intensify polarization »appeared.