Tomorrow, our show will spotlight a first-of-its-kind social experiment to identify the dangerous and disruptive effect of fake news on our brains. We had high profile fake news creator Jestin Coler craft two fictional stories: one designed to prey on liberals and another on conservatives. Women read the articles, not knowing they were fake, as neuropsychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen gathered quantitative EEG assessments. The findings supported results of a functional MRI study recently published in Nature Scientific Reports, which showed how challenging a person’s political beliefs could activate the parts of the brain associated with emotion and self-identity.
A self-described liberal woman in our social experiment reported feeling sad after reading a fictional article on illegal immigrants, but revealed stronger irritation and anger when processing a fake story about a jailed climate change researcher. Simultaneous changes in her brain activity were also much greater when processing the climate change story and correlated with a strong emotional response of angst and fear. A conservative woman demonstrated opposite reactions. For her, the article on illegal immigration elicited changes in brain activity changes that you would see during a physical threat.
The women were not told that the articles were fake until they were seated on stage. What happened next was startling. First, the women understandably, but awkwardly, tried to defend why they believed the false stories, rather than expressing frustration that they had been duped. This natural human tendency was highlighted by one woman’s comment that while the news was fake, it reinforced a truth she felt about our country—so the piece was tolerable. Restated, our preexisting beliefs can reinforce and validate fake news, thus making it seem more truthful.
Coler understood that he was able to basically hack our brains to mimic the panic of physical attack, and justified his self-described “fictional” news business, because humans will believe whatever validates their world view anyway—so why not make some money with click bait in the meantime?
Why should you care?
This brings us to the real epiphany. Fake news is about money—not political or philosophical differences. It is not a noble effort to win elections or hearts, but rather crass, commercial and immoral efforts to make money.
Coler is a democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton, yet wrote devastating pieces about her catering to the alt-right because it was more profitable. Apparently social conservatives, especially older ones, buy into conspiracy theories more readily.
Fake news affects and harms us all, though. Pope Francis recently proclaimed that “Disinformation is probably the greatest damage that the media can do.” In the current era, damage can be done rapidly. That’s because we tend to be more likely to believe something when it comes from a trusted source like a friend on social media, and since it’s so easy to share these stories, they can quickly spread.
Eventually repetition leads us to forget the source, but we don’t forget the content. Stopping the misinformation after its publication and social sharing is tough. As Winston Churchill quipped, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
Fake news can be written by just about anyone with very little downside risk: Democrats like Coler trying to make money; unemployed waiters; bored Republican students like Cameron Harris from Maryland, who pulled six million people into his bogus story about the discovery of fraudulent ballots for Hillary Clinton; poverty-stricken Macedonians; and illegal Russian syndicates. Their only goal is to get pennies by creating clickbait just for you, based on your biases.
So fake news is all about the money, and it’s not chump change either. Fake news publishers can rake in six-figure salaries—more than many real journalists. But where the money comes from is even more shocking!
Some of the most respected companies in America look the other way while deception takes place in their own backyards. These companies both serve up and place advertisements on websites often without regard for the quality of the content. The more eyeballs on the ads, the more money the fake news publishers—and eventually the advertisers—make.
Randall Rothenberg, leader of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, joined the show with an urgent plea to major companies. His organization represents the 650 biggest online publishers—including Google, Facebook (META) and Spotify. Rothenberg likens today’s situation to the growth of sweatshops. In that case, major companies did not check their supply chains, and by looking the other way, large conglomerates encouraged the growth of exploitive practices. When consumers started shaming companies for these practices, corporate America shut them down. On the Internet, the supply chain is even more porous, but we have the technology and obligation to audit it and clean it up. Companies that don’t invest in this effort should be called out by consumers and other more honorable companies. If a respected auto company put inferior tires from a disreputable supplier on your brand new car, we wouldn’t stand for it. The same should apply to reputable companies who make money off of fake news.
Fake news is designed to rip you off.
You may not have thought about it, but fake news extends beyond the domain of politics—to sell cheap products with greatly inflated prices. The margins can be quite large. In fact, we have found companies offering an 80 percent commission on the purchase price for converting an ad to a sale of their goods online.
With math like this, it’s no wonder publishers will do anything, including create deceptive ads that look just like news to generate a sale. Fake news can contain all manners of claims, celebrity endorsements, and before and after pictures—all designed to steal your money and, in some cases, your health.
How the business works.
Follow the incentives to understand the actions. Online retailers offer commissions on sales to ad publishers with no idea where the leads are coming from or what the ads look like. This is not an accident and allows seemingly respectable companies to lump their ads with unscrupulous vendors to compete with the same eyeballs and subsidize the same clickbait trolling techniques offered by fake news. Producers of scam products can offer especially high commissions, since they spend a trivial amount to create their junk products.
American ad aggregator companies customize delivery of all the offered ads (reputable or not) to you based on insights they have gained by studying your habits. They are like trigger and bullet manufacturers who can avoid being blamed for the creation of guns and so they duck the ethical challenges to their business model.
The biggest companies in America purposely look the other way while crimes are committed on their sites or in their names. Legally, social media sites have been treated like billboards, where owners take no responsibility for what gets posted. But these sites are now where a large portion of the population gets their news. This essentially morphs them into news agencies, which now must be held to the same standards. This new role creates what is akin to an existential crisis for these companies. Leaders on the inside appear divided on their ethical obligation to clean up the cesspool in which they do business. Competitors with cleaner ecosystems (like gated communities) will ultimately threaten their business model, but what do consumers do in the meantime? The hypocrisy of these large companies who promise to do no evil is matched only by the impotence of U.S. regulators and lethargy of the legal system in creating rules that encourage ethical behavior and protect Americans.
So what should we do to beat fake news?
First: avoid the embarrassingly reflexive sharing of fake news. Remember that your brain is being hacked on purpose—so take control back from your amygdala. Our new mantra should be BE AWARE BEFORE YOUR SHARE.
- Double check that the website urls match the article and are real. One great example from just this week is that is not plural—so it is not the same as , which we found selling supplements with outlandish promises.
- Type over-the-top news into your favorite search engine to see if any known hard news agency is reporting the same findings.
- Be especially careful if the title of the article employs all CAPITALS. This is atypical for reputable journalists.
- Use a fact checking website like Snopes, PolitiFact, or Factcheck.org
Let’s push lawmakers and state attorney generals to file complaints against ad aggregators for serial offenses, while legal scholars ponder new laws that no longer protect web scammers from laws that govern print media.
Finally, let me speak to corporate America. I support Randall Rothenberg’s plea for companies to clean up their supply chains. Those mired in unethical environments should create a self-policing body and invest in technologies that cleanse the system, like they have for more traditional illegal activities like prostitution and child pornography. The spread of fake news is not good for society or our businesses. As legal and ethics expert Dov Seidman pointed out, solutions are not easy but we have the most innovative companies on the planet and should be on a journey to clean up the web—which has become especially pernicious when it comes to health.