Fact #1: The phenomenon known as the Illusory Truth Effect causes one to think anything is true if they see it more than once.
Fact #2: A person with mild Alzheimer’s disease suffers from a condition that prevents them from remembering most things that weren’t previously contextualized for them — those things are also known as facts.
Conclusion: Thanks to a relative immunity to the illusory truth effect, a person with mild Alzheimer’s disease is a better fact-checker than a person living without this disease.
The term “Fake News” is thrown around left and alt-right by one of the most powerful people on the planet, and no matter how you feel about said person, it is undeniable that trust in the Fourth Estate has plummeted partly because of it.
Whether you like it or not, the platform on which we get most of our news now has shifted from paper to digital, and the rules are different there. The Open Internet is home to anyone who has enough time to hit “Publish” — or “post”, or “send”, or “tweet”. Your hillbilly cousin can write a half-assed tweet about immigration with as much readership as a full-length article from The Washington Post. The core values of the land of the free have transpired to the rest of the digital world, but as many people have already realized — even your hillbilly cousin — the land of the free ain’t perfect.
“You don’t talk, you watch talk shows. You don’t play games, you watch game shows. Travel, relationships, risk; every meaningful experience must be packaged and delivered to you to watch at a distance so that you can remain ever-sheltered, ever-passive, ever-ravenous consumers who can’t free themselves to rise from their couches to break a sweat.”
— Screenslaver, the main villain from Pixar’s Incredibles 2
In the algorithmic age of media, we can just let things happen to us. We don’t need to make the effort to think about making the effort to choose what we want to consume.
Want to find something you want (but don’t necessarily need) on social media? Don’t worry, the Internet’s got you covered — just scroll down the purposely endless one-page feed on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube… you’ll get what you want eventually.
Don’t know what to watch next? Don’t fret — don’t move a finger or even an eyelid, YouTube’s autoplay will just play another video for you.
And Netflix just grants wishes at this point.
When it comes to information on the digital platform, news media plays by the same new rules as Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube, Netflix, etc. Because it has to.
News media doesn’t actually have its own digital platform. A news outlet can have its own website, yes, but everything else you see published by said news outlet is advertising.
If the Open Internet is home to anyone, news media needs to be in as many rooms as possible to stay relevant for its fellow tenants. Social Media is the owner, and the lease news media reluctantly signed and needs to abide by is content algorithm.
And this is where news media has the hardest time.
An open market may lead to more competition which usually leads to better products for consumers, but when the news media has to compete against Logan Paul, Buzzfeed’s gif’ed up listicles and porn all at the same time, it’s fair to assume that the objective quality of news media’s products will die down and eventually look the same as its competition.
With The Algorithm in control of the feed, you either need to (a) blend in with the big content creators or (b) stick out of the haystack with quirky and outlandish headlines that get retweeted and shared without the article even being read because of a worldwide plummeting attention span. Or are those two things the same nowadays?
And when everything in your feed looks the same but not in someone else’s because the algorithm filters content from user to user so it can pander to what we want to see most, social media creates a curated version of the truth for each and everyone of us— an echo chamber that feeds our confirmation bias.
In French, when something you say sounds weird and mostly funny out of context, we have a saying that goes “ce sera répété, déformé et amplifié”, which basically means that whatever you just said will be “repeated, distorted and amplified”.
This is the state of information in the Fake News era.
In a part of her Netflix special Nanette, Hannah Gadsby shares a conversation she had with her mom years ago about her upbringing as a lesbian in 70% homophobic Tasmania. Her mom wanted her to change because she knew the world wouldn’t. She apologized profusely for raising Hannah as if she were straight — she knew her life was going to be hard, and she still managed to make it worse.
It’s a harrowing story that pulls on many heartstrings, but the way she tells it now is very different from how she would talk about it — a major part of her life — years before. Before this special, she had another comedy show about coming out, and in it she would talk about her painful upbringing not with stories, but with jokes. Setup — punchline. One-two. Jab-straight. It’s quick. No time to process it. Need to move on to the next joke. And eventually, she says,
“I froze an incredibly formative experience at its trauma point and sealed it off into jokes. And that story became a routine, and through repetition, that joke version fused with my actual memory of what happened.”
In 2015, Lisa K. Fazio and her team conducted a study on the illusory truth effect in which they found that repetition can even trump prior knowledge of an easy topic. For example, when presented with the statement “a date is a dried plum” more than once, more participants of the study would lean towards it being true even though most of them knew it was a false statement at the beginning. A prune is a dried plum, by the way.
There’s a toxic relationship between repetition and knowledge, one that your brain has a hard time dealing with. When something is repeated, your brain will process it faster. When something is repeated, your brain will process it faster. When something is repeated, your brain process it faster, to the point of where you will just skim over a part of an already repeated sentence and not notice a word is missing. When your brain processes a statement quickly, it is more likely to consider it as true. “I’ve seen that somewhere before and just moved on, so it must be true.”
Well, it may be time to think again, because this situation is killing us.
I brought up mild Alzheimer’s disease at the beginning for a good reason. Someone suffering from this disease will less likely have their judgement swayed by repetition than someone not suffering from it. Of course, a person suffering from this disease wouldn’t necessarily make a better fact-checker because of other symptoms unrelated to memory, but this thought experiment allows us to assess the state of knowledge in the Fake News era.
Now, knowing isn’t half the battle anymore — it’s only 10% of it.
Making the necessary steps to battle against this information crisis is important both for readers and journalism itself — and those steps have already been made. We’re not there yet, but they are being taken, one at a time.
The most recent step a lot of news outlets have already taken is to settle on a new business model, one that doesn’t rely on advertisers to pay for their revenues — it’s the digital subscription model. Quality journalism can be born again thanks to a reliable subscription system made available by readers themselves who also understand the value of independent journalism.
But the digital subscription model has gotten a lot of flack, after all, why would readers have to pay for information on the Internet? A free, open platform? A lot of people watch the news, keep up to date with what’s going on in the world and read several articles a day on the internet out of a sense of civic duty — and civic duty is free, right? Well, people might pat themselves on the back when they read an article from The Guardian, but The Guardian needs to be patted with a solid revenue stream to continue unbiased, quality reporting. It’s time to treat journalism as a service. Why? Because we owe it to journalists, but most importantly, to ourselves. If we deserve to get true information, reporters also deserve to be compensated for it. The law of attraction doesn’t only work for personal development — if you want nice things, dish them out first.
But, having said that, whatever route journalism takes, confirmation bias and the illusory truth effect will always exist, but I believe we deserve to let those phenomenons happen to us as little as possible. This is personal development.
Do I know this? Do I think I know this? Do I already think I know this as I’m reading this article? Where did I get this knowledge from anyway? Can I trust it? Is it against or in favor of what I already think is true? Is what I believe is true, true? Can I reverse engineer my thought process to know where my belief stems from?
These are questions we should try and ask ourselves when we watch or listen or read about important issues online, on TV or in newspapers. It’s hard. It’s taxing on many levels. But it’s necessary. The lines between opinion and critical thinking have been blurred by the non-stop onslaught of news we consume either voluntarily or against our will, but mostly the latter. Because in this age of content constantly pushed in our faces, when you always have something to move on to immediately, you can’t take the opportunity to sit back and think and reflect on what you just watched, listened, or read. You move on to the next thing.
In Nanette, Hannah Gadsby tells us she froze a formative experience at its trauma point and sealed it off into jokes. Setup, punchline. It’s quick. No time to let it sit. Need to move on to the next joke. And this is exactly what Fake News and the era of non-stop content is — a joke. We are constantly hit with punchlines we don’t take time to reflect on. Through repetition, Hannah Gadsby’s punchline became her story because she hadn’t taken enough time to move past it. Fighting against the illusory truth effect isn’t just about fighting against Fake News, we need to do it for, again, ourselves — for our sanity.
I don’t know if the era of non-stop content will ever run its course, but I know we can steer it in a new direction. A joke is simple — a setup followed by a punchline. It’s quick. No time to let it sink in. But we need to let it sink in. We need to add this third part. We need to turn the joke into a story — a beginning, a middle, and an end. We need to sit back and think and study and reflect on the news we’re fed to fully understand it, so as not to blindly react to it. Because when you always have something else to move on to, you can’t hold on to the things that truly matter.