How We Embrace Lies in Politics

I saw a few Facebook posts on my  feed the other day of New Yorker articles, and the first few associated comments about them.

There's some serious negative emotion there. But it's worth noting that both New Yorker articles are satire. I can't be certain that everyone looking at these thought they were real--certainly nobody's going to admit to it--but the comments suggest that this was their first impression.

Looking at the headlines again, and knowing that the New Yorker publishes satire pieces rather than actual news reports, it might be surprising that there would be any question.

Another friend was fond of forwarding me chain emails until she got tired of me replying with Snopes articles about them. 

One looked like this:

It later accused the President of using national taxpayer dollars to build it in his own home state. The pictured structured turned out to be a prison, indeed (which turned into an interesting deep-dive), but in Austria.

Another email I got had pictures of the results of a raid; the email claimed that it was American border patrol agents raiding Mexican paramilitary units entering the US via Arizona. The email  had lines like, "it's a war out there, but the news media is covering it up!"

But the pictures pretty obviously have no American uniforms or troops, and the sub-tropical environment tells us it's not the US--turns out it's a raid of FARC in Colombia. Just not even close.

When we're primed to be skeptical that the President is building fancy hotel-prisons, or that Mexico is invading the United States, we're likely to recognize that these emails probably aren't describing reality.

A third shared an article on Facebook that claimed that the Fukashima power plant was still leaking radioactive material in the ocean (it's not), that this was causing fish to develop tumors and other weird growth in alarming numbers (nope), and that the Japanese government was covering it up.

The headline picture was a scary-looking fish that happens to be a very normal Wolffish, and the article had no citations whatever. The website's other articles are about fish falling from the sky, Amazonian legends being true, ghosts, and alien landings. 

My friends in all these cases are smart people and are really able to have some good conversations about politics. But when they saw the right kind of outrageous story, some part of their brain said, "I really want this to be true!" and accepted it... and worse, passed it along to others, with the sanction of that person ("I shared this with you, so I'm telling you it's probably true"). 

What I think is afoot here is a particularly vicious and ugly form of confirmation bias. If such satire or flat-out nonsense was being written about someone wearing our team colors, we would never suspect it to be true. There's some evidence that we particularly want to believe outrageous tales when they provoke strong emotions in us: this may be why Rolling Stone published the false UVA story of rape despite many red flags, or why This American Life published Mike Daisey's completely fabricated story of worker abuse at Foxconn.

This poses a problem for us: if we want certain things to be true, then we are at serious risk of embracing lies that are sent our way, because it feels good to reinforce the narrative we've built. We get such intense emotional pleasure--often in vindication, or outrage, or something else that causes a lot of dopamine secretion--out of having our narratives reinforced that there's a part of our brain that does not care if it's reality. Of course, whether we want a certain reality or another has no bearing on what we're dealing with, politically: if our narrative is bogus, our policy ideas in response to that will be bogus. 

To learn more about this phenomenon, Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion is my go-to field guide. Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene and "How Politics Makes us Stupid" by Ezra Klein are also pretty good.

Before you say, "man, other people should really think about this," challenge yourself: you're probably guilty of this sometimes, just as others are. I am, too. You can't improve others nearly as well as you can yourself, and if you ever intend to change peoples' minds in the future, you're going to need to learn to find the lies you've embraced, and exorcise them.



Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.