Understanding Fake News

Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance has been detested and denigrated by the social sciences community since its first formal description in 1956. As a result, a lot of what people have been taught about it is wrong -- specifically, the theory is mainly about the consequences of emotional disequalibria caused by conflicts between beliefs and reality, and only tangentially about the intellectual discomfort (cognitive dissonance) felt by those holding two opposing views at the same time.

The question Festinger was interested in was how the overwhelming majority of Germans, people who worked hard, paid their bills, and went to church on Sunday could genuinely hold Christian moral views and yet see nothing wrong about working to exterminate Jews, retardates, cripples, and the otherwise socially undesirable -- and that question reverberates today because the same behavioral pattern that has driven mob behaviors ranging in scale from Mao's roughly eighty million dead to my sister in law's insane anti-Trump rants, underlies both the production of, and the response to, much of what we think of as fake news.

Festinger's description of the processes that lead to morality denying behavior among groups of believers features multiple stages during each of which a small minority drop out of the process but a majority escalate their commitment, seek to further strengthen their belief by proactively searching out confirmatory opinion (a process that includes proselytization) and increasingly substitute emotional and physical violence for rationality in the rejection of contradictory information.

In this context, it is easy to see why people who want to free drug dealers and cure child rapists and murderers through therapy see nothing wrong with jailing climate change deniers, favor abortions for their social lessors, and resort immediately to the vilest of ad hominem attacks when their beliefs are challenged.

Thus the search for confirmatory opinion drives the widespread acceptance of falsehoods about specific enemies whether those are individuals (Sarah Palin did not say "I can see Russia from my house"); organizations (neither the Trump campaign nor the GOP as a whole exhibits systemic racism or homophobia); or merely identifiable groups (the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at UVA did not rape "Jackie", cops don't preferentially shoot blacks, and there is no 97% scientific consensus on anthropogenic warming). Similarly, the avoidance of contrary information drives believers to select information sources, like the New York Times, Salon, and CNN, that can be relied on not to mention people like Bob Creamer or Scot Fogal; not to point out that Ezekiel Emanuel's ethical musings largely replicate those of Nazi eugenicists; and to gloss over dozens of major Obama era scandals ranging from Holder and the New Black Panthers to the IRS and EPA abuses.

Since dissonance reducing behaviors are part of the normal human psych they can reliably be taken advantage of. Marketers do this, for example, to strengthen brand loyalties: GM's ads showing a Ford F-150s aluminum load bed being damaged by a steel toolbox thrown at just the right angle are aimed, for example, at reducing the rate at which GM customers are defecting to Ford, not at expanding its own customer base.

Thus the third, and possibly worst, form of fake news starts with a deliberate lie told with a specific intent to deceive that is then picked up by news services which lose the distinction between reporting that someone said or did something and the truth of what they said or showed. The most obvious examples of this in current American politics are the lies the Obama administration told to sell ObamaCare: as Jonathan Gruber has repeatedly jeered, everyone, from Obama on down, knew these were lies, but most of the liberal media dropped the distinction between reporting that, for example, Obama said "if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor" to report, instead, that ObamaCare would let those who wanted to keep their existing plans keep those plans.

Gruber hasn't been the only one to brag about this kind of intentional abuse of the leftist media platform: in a New York Times Magazine interview Ben Rhodes, justified by fawning media as the president's alter ego on foreign policy, described how he developed and implemented a fake news plan that both appealed to those looking for reasons to justify their support for Obama's actual pro-Muslim, anti-Israeli, policy and set up cognitive barriers against those wishing to draw public attention to what was really happening.

A short gush from the article illustrates the process:

For much of the past five weeks, Rhodes has been channeling the president's consciousness into what was imagined as an optimistic, forward-looking final State of the Union. Now, from the flat screens, a challenge to that narrative arises: Iran has seized two small boats containing 10 American sailors. Rhodes found out about the Iranian action earlier that morning but was trying to keep it out of the news until after the president's speech. "They can't keep a secret for two hours," Rhodes says, with a tone of mild exasperation at the break in message discipline...

Price turns to his computer and begins tapping away at the administration's well-cultivated network of officials, talking heads, columnists and newspaper reporters, web jockeys and outside advocates who can tweet at critics and tweak their stories backed up by quotations from "senior White House officials" and "spokespeople." I watch the message bounce from Rhodes's brain to Price's keyboard to the three big briefing podiums -- the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon -- and across the Twitterverse, where it springs to life in dozens of insta-stories, which over the next five hours don formal dress for mainstream outlets. It's a tutorial in the making of a digital news microclimate -- a storm that is easy to mistake these days for a fact of nature, but whose author is sitting next to me right now.

Like Gruber's gloats, the story revealed too much -- producing a predictable rush to self-justification in the catspaw media Rhodes was using to manipulate public opinion. Here's a bit from Joe Cirincione writing for Politico in such haste and anger that his subhead "None of us was taking the Obama administration's word for it on the Iran nuclear deal", still contains an obvious grammar error:

A devious president and his top aides trick the nation into a dangerous foreign entanglement with the help of a gullible press corps and complicit experts. George W. Bush and war with Iraq? No, Barack Obama and diplomacy with Iran. At least according to David Samuels' telling in an instantly controversial article for this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine about White House adviser Ben Rhodes.

Rhodes, whom I know, is very talented, but he is no modern-day Rasputin casting a spell over Obama, the press and public. The truth is that Samuels used his access to Rhodes to attack a deal he never liked and publicly campaigned against.

In his article, Samuels claims Obama was "actively misleading" the public about Iran. He says the president made up a story of how the 2013 election of pragmatic Iranian President Hassan Rouhani created a new opening with Iran. This, so Obama could win "broad public currency for the thought that there was a significant split in the regime." This, in turn, claims Samuels, allowed Obama to avoid a "divisive but clarifying debate of the actual policy choices" and eliminate the "fuss about Iran's nuclear program" so that Obama could pursue his real agenda: "a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East."

Every element of this thesis falls apart under scrutiny.

On the surface this response looks like an ad hominem attack on Samuels coupled with repeated claims to shared possession of some objective Truth -- that we know that every element of the Rhodes story is false because we know it to be false. More subtly, Cirincione's is a worldview with exaggerations and elisions: values filters adding certainty and weight to some factors while deleting others to fit reality to preferred perceptions.

This is really what fake news is: a sometimes intentional and sometimes unintentional combination of lies of commission serving the needs of those seeking confirmatory opinion with lies of omission serving those seeking to reject contrary information. 

Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance has been detested and denigrated by the social sciences community since its first formal description in 1956. As a result, a lot of what people have been taught about it is wrong -- specifically, the theory is mainly about the consequences of emotional disequalibria caused by conflicts between beliefs and reality, and only tangentially about the intellectual discomfort (cognitive dissonance) felt by those holding two opposing views at the same time.

The question Festinger was interested in was how the overwhelming majority of Germans, people who worked hard, paid their bills, and went to church on Sunday could genuinely hold Christian moral views and yet see nothing wrong about working to exterminate Jews, retardates, cripples, and the otherwise socially undesirable -- and that question reverberates today because the same behavioral pattern that has driven mob behaviors ranging in scale from Mao's roughly eighty million dead to my sister in law's insane anti-Trump rants, underlies both the production of, and the response to, much of what we think of as fake news.

Festinger's description of the processes that lead to morality denying behavior among groups of believers features multiple stages during each of which a small minority drop out of the process but a majority escalate their commitment, seek to further strengthen their belief by proactively searching out confirmatory opinion (a process that includes proselytization) and increasingly substitute emotional and physical violence for rationality in the rejection of contradictory information.

In this context, it is easy to see why people who want to free drug dealers and cure child rapists and murderers through therapy see nothing wrong with jailing climate change deniers, favor abortions for their social lessors, and resort immediately to the vilest of ad hominem attacks when their beliefs are challenged.

Thus the search for confirmatory opinion drives the widespread acceptance of falsehoods about specific enemies whether those are individuals (Sarah Palin did not say "I can see Russia from my house"); organizations (neither the Trump campaign nor the GOP as a whole exhibits systemic racism or homophobia); or merely identifiable groups (the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at UVA did not rape "Jackie", cops don't preferentially shoot blacks, and there is no 97% scientific consensus on anthropogenic warming). Similarly, the avoidance of contrary information drives believers to select information sources, like the New York Times, Salon, and CNN, that can be relied on not to mention people like Bob Creamer or Scot Fogal; not to point out that Ezekiel Emanuel's ethical musings largely replicate those of Nazi eugenicists; and to gloss over dozens of major Obama era scandals ranging from Holder and the New Black Panthers to the IRS and EPA abuses.

Since dissonance reducing behaviors are part of the normal human psych they can reliably be taken advantage of. Marketers do this, for example, to strengthen brand loyalties: GM's ads showing a Ford F-150s aluminum load bed being damaged by a steel toolbox thrown at just the right angle are aimed, for example, at reducing the rate at which GM customers are defecting to Ford, not at expanding its own customer base.

Thus the third, and possibly worst, form of fake news starts with a deliberate lie told with a specific intent to deceive that is then picked up by news services which lose the distinction between reporting that someone said or did something and the truth of what they said or showed. The most obvious examples of this in current American politics are the lies the Obama administration told to sell ObamaCare: as Jonathan Gruber has repeatedly jeered, everyone, from Obama on down, knew these were lies, but most of the liberal media dropped the distinction between reporting that, for example, Obama said "if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor" to report, instead, that ObamaCare would let those who wanted to keep their existing plans keep those plans.

Gruber hasn't been the only one to brag about this kind of intentional abuse of the leftist media platform: in a New York Times Magazine interview Ben Rhodes, justified by fawning media as the president's alter ego on foreign policy, described how he developed and implemented a fake news plan that both appealed to those looking for reasons to justify their support for Obama's actual pro-Muslim, anti-Israeli, policy and set up cognitive barriers against those wishing to draw public attention to what was really happening.

A short gush from the article illustrates the process:

For much of the past five weeks, Rhodes has been channeling the president's consciousness into what was imagined as an optimistic, forward-looking final State of the Union. Now, from the flat screens, a challenge to that narrative arises: Iran has seized two small boats containing 10 American sailors. Rhodes found out about the Iranian action earlier that morning but was trying to keep it out of the news until after the president's speech. "They can't keep a secret for two hours," Rhodes says, with a tone of mild exasperation at the break in message discipline...

Price turns to his computer and begins tapping away at the administration's well-cultivated network of officials, talking heads, columnists and newspaper reporters, web jockeys and outside advocates who can tweet at critics and tweak their stories backed up by quotations from "senior White House officials" and "spokespeople." I watch the message bounce from Rhodes's brain to Price's keyboard to the three big briefing podiums -- the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon -- and across the Twitterverse, where it springs to life in dozens of insta-stories, which over the next five hours don formal dress for mainstream outlets. It's a tutorial in the making of a digital news microclimate -- a storm that is easy to mistake these days for a fact of nature, but whose author is sitting next to me right now.

Like Gruber's gloats, the story revealed too much -- producing a predictable rush to self-justification in the catspaw media Rhodes was using to manipulate public opinion. Here's a bit from Joe Cirincione writing for Politico in such haste and anger that his subhead "None of us was taking the Obama administration's word for it on the Iran nuclear deal", still contains an obvious grammar error:

A devious president and his top aides trick the nation into a dangerous foreign entanglement with the help of a gullible press corps and complicit experts. George W. Bush and war with Iraq? No, Barack Obama and diplomacy with Iran. At least according to David Samuels' telling in an instantly controversial article for this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine about White House adviser Ben Rhodes.

Rhodes, whom I know, is very talented, but he is no modern-day Rasputin casting a spell over Obama, the press and public. The truth is that Samuels used his access to Rhodes to attack a deal he never liked and publicly campaigned against.

In his article, Samuels claims Obama was "actively misleading" the public about Iran. He says the president made up a story of how the 2013 election of pragmatic Iranian President Hassan Rouhani created a new opening with Iran. This, so Obama could win "broad public currency for the thought that there was a significant split in the regime." This, in turn, claims Samuels, allowed Obama to avoid a "divisive but clarifying debate of the actual policy choices" and eliminate the "fuss about Iran's nuclear program" so that Obama could pursue his real agenda: "a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East."

Every element of this thesis falls apart under scrutiny.

On the surface this response looks like an ad hominem attack on Samuels coupled with repeated claims to shared possession of some objective Truth -- that we know that every element of the Rhodes story is false because we know it to be false. More subtly, Cirincione's is a worldview with exaggerations and elisions: values filters adding certainty and weight to some factors while deleting others to fit reality to preferred perceptions.

This is really what fake news is: a sometimes intentional and sometimes unintentional combination of lies of commission serving the needs of those seeking confirmatory opinion with lies of omission serving those seeking to reject contrary information.