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Fake news, confirmation bias undermines academics

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A lot of discussion in the media and the world of academia centers around fake news. While this phenomenon is not new it seems to have gained a lot more traction recently, and whether it’s the fault of CNN, FOX or MSNBC, everyone plays a role in the success and proliferation of falsities.

One of the biggest things people do to enable is believe and spread this fake news. Why people believe these falsities can be explained by a phenomenon that is becoming equally apparent, confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is defined by Encyclopedia Britannica as: “the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs.” Basically, people are more likely to believe something if it agrees with their opinions.

This psychological phenomenon enables the proliferation of fake news. If someone sees something that is fake news yet it agrees with their view of the world they will probably believe it and spread it.

The biggest catalyst for this is social media. Social media makes it easy for the user to drive what gets popular and therefore seen more. According to a 2016 study from the Pew Research Center a majority of U.S. adults, 62 percent, get news on social media.

Also, according to an analysis conducted by Buzzfeed News, the most popular fake news stories were more widely shared on Facebook than the most popular mainstream news stories.

This is aided by social media bubbles, a more recent phenomenon where people on social media stay friends and interact almost strictly with people who share ideological beliefs with them, ultimately shielding them from having their ideology challenged or any falsities they may hold true.

This phenomenon is illustrated in the study published by the National Academy of the Sciences of the US. Scientists concluded that “information related to distinct narrative, conspiracy theories and scientific new, generates homogeneous and polarized communities.” This means that this fake news and our willingness to believe it divides us as a nation.

A good example of this is a number of posts that claimed to be a Donald Trump quote from 1998. The posts received millions of shares and was featured all over Facebook and other major social media outlets.

“If I were to run, I'd run as a Republican. They're the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they'd still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific," the false posts said. This quote got tons of publicity on social media and otherwise, even though the truth is Trump never actually said that. Snopes fact checkers addressed the issue first in 2015, but the false information was already spread. There were no records of Trump saying anything like this.

The quote sounds quite convincing, and if true it would point out hypocrisy on the part of Trump. It's easy to click the share button and never check any sources.

It becomes extremely problematic because this causes people of differing ideologies, mainly left and right, are running off of differing “fact” sheets. So, if two people of differing ideologies try to engage in an intellectual discussion, there is a major disconnect.

This has some larger implications. How can an academic community in a very divided country and state engage in academic discourse if everyone participating are going off of different assumptions?

For any kind of discussion to be possible, it is important to establish what is fact, and if there is disagreement on this very fundamental thing the entire effort becomes futile. It becomes important for all consumers of news and otherwise to stay skeptical and hold media outlets accountable for contributing.

The best ways to do this is to fact check and review sources. Most of the time it is as simple as a quick Google search to figure out if something is fake. As a community, we must fact check before sharing.