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A psychologist explains why we’re so easily fooled by fake stories online

Man reading news article from tablet
“I think of it like an amusement ride. Of course it's exciting, but it's also exhausting, so you don't want to be on it all the time," Seifert said about the 24/7 nature of information online.";


How do we sort out fact from fiction on social media? Do we really want to? It seems that people are quickly and happily sharing things online that are pure fiction without question and without a critical thought.


Stateside host Cynthia Canty found herself asking these questions recently when something came up on her Facebook feed. Some friends shared a story describing an airplane flight crew "taking a knee," walking off the plane, and stranding the New Orleans Saints: the flight crew's "protest" of players kneeling during the National Anthem.


Somebody would share the story, and then his friends would pile on, saying, “Yeah, that'll show them what America is about.”

You get the idea.



The thing is, all these people, including those people Canty knows, were congratulating the flight crew for something that never happened.


It was pure fiction.


Canty says she tracked down the source of the story in about a minute: a "satire" website which deliberately posts what it calls works of pure satirical fiction, hoping to punk the very people who are jumping on that story to share it.


Colleen Seifert, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, joined Stateside to share what she's found out about how fiction becomes accepted as fact on social media.


Listen above for the full conversation, or catch highlights below.


On being fooled online


“It's hard to imagine somebody is going to that length to try to influence my opinion about something. One rule of thumb is, did you ever share a story you didn't read? So you see the headline, you see about taking a knee, you see it fits your ideas, you share it to your site for others to enjoy, but you didn't actually open it and read the entire story and determine that the quotes were real or maybe even do a little additional background check. If it so obviously fits your ideas that you don't have to look at it, then you should look at it.”


On the trust we place in social media sites


“I imagine that people are being more critical and more savvy about the fact that information is being fed to them, or that the reason for a site's existence is not to be nice to you, but to make money. But it's easy to ignore. It's easy to think that your Snapchat is really about sharing pictures with friends and that you don't have to worry about where they go.”


On how the distraction of social media is reconditioning us


“One interesting thing about the interruption is that you can train yourself to want to be interrupted. So if you constantly, every 15 seconds or so, are distracted by something else, then your mind only works for 15 seconds and starts expecting the interruption. We habituate to the idea that more and more interruption is coming, so you don't settle in for a long, thoughtful period, you prepare for the fact that you're going to be interrupted soon.”


On how online distraction prevents thorough discussion

“It's a challenge to convince people that the rate of new information should be slower. As long as we can take in new information, we think it's great. We can opt out of it by closing our eyes or stepping away, so you feel like you have some control over it, but we see that rate of information flow really changing our thinking about events. A story comes out, we're considering it, what does it mean, we're discussing it, and then there's a tweet that captures everyone's attention and completely removes the agenda of what we've been discussing. It's like you can distract a roomful of dogs with a treat as easily as you can a single dog. We're all following, like lemmings, the biggest piece of information off the cliff.”


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