Fake news – is everyone sick to death of this term already? Probably, but the phenomenon doesn’t look set to disappear anytime soon. The largest study of its kind was conducted by a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with the results – published in the journal Science – revealing some unnerving truths about the prevalence of lies in our current affairs. Researchers found that fake new stories reached 1,500 Twitter users six times faster than those depicting fact, and a lie was 70% more likely to be shared on social media. Fake news has quickly become the bane of our lives, inciting distrust, confusion and anxiety among readers, but is it really all that new and why are we perpetually tricked into believing the lies?
A journalist from The Times recently claimed that the advent of fake news occurred long before a certain somebody sporting a blonde quiff graced our screens and papers. In an article entitled ‘France may be sending us a tapestry of lies’, Ben Macintyre proposes that the Bayeux Tapestry is in fact a piece of French propaganda falsely depicting the most significant moment of 1066; whilst historians argue that King Harold II was almost certainly hacked to death by Norman knights, the embroidery famously details the monarch falling to his death as a result of an arrow to his eye. So there you have it, the first case of fake news emerged almost one thousand years ago, with the French documenting events in order to fit their narrative.
But is this the case of practically all history? As Winston Churchill notoriously said, “history is written by the victors”. It will never be entirely unbiased or impartial, and will always incorporate elements of opinion or subjectivity. It is only human nature that the victors are going to big themselves up: they’ll omit a loss of a battle or the deaths of their soldiers whilst glorifying their own successes. We take history as fact and do little to question its authenticity, but if something as influential as the Bayeux Tapestry could be falsified, perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so trusting.
“We are attracted to these stories because they are controversial and provocative, apparently giving our brains a greater dopamine hit”
So, why do we believe such lies? It seems fake news is all part of a vicious circle: we are attracted to these stories because they are controversial and provocative, apparently giving our brains a greater dopamine hit than a factual article would. What follows is a stream of tweeting, retweeting, tagging and sharing, allowing the story to spread its tentacles around the internet world. Psychologists also argue, unsurprisingly, that the more we see something the more likely we are to believe it, even if it’s not true. With everyone we know pushing the same story, it quickly becomes embedded in our psyche, before a truthful – slightly less inflammatory – article has even racked up a single share.
It can be so hard to distinguish between the truth and a lie that the future of news is shaky. Will this wave of fake news become a tsunami, within which all semblance of truthful and trustworthy reporting is washed away? Or will the tide turn? Will we become more tech-savvy, more adept at judging the reliability of news stories and more alert to the lies that threaten to invade our lives? It’s impossible to be sure, but we can sure as hell hope it’ll be the latter.