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6 reasons we fall for hoaxes on Facebook

If everybody’s sharing it, channel your inner After School Special and proceed with caution.


Cabell Gathman

Internet Culture

Posted on Sep 10, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 3:08 pm CDT

Last month brought a great deal of fanfare, and accompanying snarky outrage, about a new “Satire” tag on Facebook for content sources like The Onion. Yet fake “news” items—which run deeper than satire—continue to propagate rapidly across the site, as well as on other social media platforms like Facebook. In the past few days, huge numbers of Facebook users saw—and shared—a hoax about severe winter weather from Empire News, predicting “record-shattering snowfall coming soon.” Meanwhile, retweets of a “limited edition” Pumpkin Spice-flavored Durex condom image flooded Twitter timelines.

Most media coverage has approached this kind of rapid viral proliferation of fake content as a problem of consumer intelligence, an account both inflammatory and ableist. Furthermore, it ignores how news and social media, and social interaction itself, actually work. Cries for better media literacy aren’t wrong, but if we want to really push back against hoaxes and other misinformation online, we need to understand why they spread – and how we can stop spreading them.

1) People don’t actually read the content that they’re sharing

Both the Empire News winter forecast and the Durex Pumpkin Spice condom were easily falsifiable, but they benefited from a general tendency among social media users to share without reading, let alone verifying. The subtitle of the Empire News article, “Bread & Milk Prices Expected to Soar,” hinted broadly at fake content—but it’s not visible on the link as shared on Facebook’s newsfeed, which displays only the unremarkably clickbaity headline. Skimming over the subtitle, but reading the article, as I did, one might become suspicious after the fourth or fifth mention of soaring bread and milk values.

A quick comparison of the Durex condom packet with Google images of other flavored Durex condoms shows that it’s clearly the odd one out. No other wrapper features a graphic, identifying flavor by color alone.

You need to read carefully to contextualize the headline, which even on “real” news sites is often only peripherally related to content.

2) People don’t consider the legitimacy of specific news sources.

This is where Facebook’s attempt at tagging content as “Satire” is meant to provide a shortcut. New hoax sites spring up all the time, however, and it’s hard to keep track. A better approach would be to tag particular sites as “trusted,” and consider any site not so tagged as in need of verification. For the individual user, a quick search for “Empire News” turns up the “Betty White Dyes Peacefully at Home” headline that also recently circulated on social media. A site that generates few hits at all, of course, is also suspect.

On a related note, we need to pay attention to “experts” or “official” sources cited within content. The Empire News weather hoax cites numerous people and organizations that, when Googled, turn out not to exist. That’s what we call a red flag.  Even “legitimate” news sources, however, may summarize experts’ claims in spurious or misleading ways.

If there’s any question, use Google and more specialized sites like PubMed to assess credibility.

3) People are vulnerable to confirmation bias.

I was instantly skeptical of the winter weather hoax. I didn’t doubt its claims because I recognized or bothered to Google the domain or even, I have to admit, because I am a social media genius. I doubted it because it didn’t align with my personal biases or desires: I don’t trust long-term weather forecasting and I hate cold. The person on my News Feed who posted it, however, loves cold and snow – they were primed to trust a headline that confirmed their previously held beliefs and desires.

Social media have only exacerbated the general psychological tendency toward confirmation bias. This becomes especially self-perpetuating on Facebook, where previous interaction with certain topics, or particular friends, drives up representation of that subject and those people on the News Feed. Combined with our innate desire to think the worst of “the public,” it’s not surprising that people were so quick to believe that a major condom manufacturer had joined the Cult of Pumpkin Spice.

When you see a headline that perfectly supports your buddy’s ideology, or even worse, your own, you should be more skeptical of its claims and slower to hit “share.”

4) People confuse fake news with legitimate content.

Of the three “Related Articles” that appear for the winter weather hoax, one is a legitimate Accuweather page about last year’s polar vortex. Another is a Farmers’ Almanac page, which Facebook does not mark as potentially untrustworthy although the Farmers’ Almanac has never performed better than random chance.

“Related” can mean a lot of things: posted by the same people (your famously unreliable human friends), on the same topic (winter, weather, and flavored condoms are Real Things), or on the same site (a somewhat better indicator).

Don’t assume that Related Articles mean much about the legitimacy of the current piece.

5) People see a piece of content as more legitimate the more they see of it.

This is where those people who think we fall for online hoaxes because we’re not smart really ignore how human psychology works. On a fundamental level, people are inclined to believe that groups of others around us are accurate in their assessments of objective reality.

We believe this so hard, in fact, that many of us doubt our physical senses if other people’s claims contradict them. Social psychologist Solomon Asch initially demonstrated this with the seemingly neutral subject of line length, surrounding research subjects with unknown (though socially similar) others. Imagine how much stronger the effect is when moral or intellectual judgment and your friends and coworkers are involved.

This effect is even further exacerbated on Facebook, where developing social norms may increasingly prohibit explicit disagreement. As we saw last month following the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, while Facebook has a vested interest in hiding controversial content, there is also a tendency among many users to self-censor on the site, even more so than people do in face-to-face social environments.

If everybody’s sharing it, channel your inner After School Special and proceed with caution.

6) People confuse satire and hoaxes.

Speaking up about hoaxes on social media is tricky; people don’t generally like being publicly exposed as wrong. When people attempt to save face by dismissing hoaxes they have shared as “satire,” insinuating that challengers are humorless, the concept of “satire” is being abused.

Satire is meant to expose its subject as wrong: Evil, ridiculous, or contradictory. False information presented and consumed as fact spectacularly fails as satire, because it doesn’t expose anything. Pumpkin spice condoms are funny – and not heavily cloaked in a pretense of respectability. Sites like Empire News, however, are fundamentally about getting clicks. Lying for profit is neither novel nor inherently artistic.

If a piece of false content is virtually indistinguishable from the kind of content it supposedly “satirizes,” it isn’t satire. If it’s only “funny” because it’s a lie, don’t share it.

Photo Rennett Stowe/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Sep 10, 2014, 9:30 am CDT