Recognizing the social function of news sharing is the key to understanding this seeming irrational behavior. In the world of social media, of Facebook and Twitter, news is shared not just to inform or even to persuade. It is used as a marker of identity, a way to proclaim your affinity with a particular community.
Legitimate stories can, of course, serve this role. But for the purpose of marking social identity, fake stories can be even more powerful.
The key is the difference in how outsiders respond to your posting of a fake vs. real news story. If the news is real, outsiders who recognize it as such may disagree with it, but posting it does not reflect badly on you, and it may provide a common ground for argument and discussion.
If, however, the news you post is fake, outsiders are more likely to be outraged. If you stand by it tenaciously, they may call you a fool or a liar. This infuriated response makes posting fake news a convincing signal of your allegiance to your in-group. By demonstrating that you are willing to sacrifice your ties to and your reputation among the outsiders, you prove the authenticity of your commitment.
Furthermore, stoking conflict with outsiders strengthens the in-group’s cohesion. This, too, raises the status of the person who posts a hotly contested story, especially when tensions are high.
This is why when signaling identity is the reason for sharing news, fake news is hard to uproot. It proves the poster’s commitment to the community by demonstrating willingness to sacrifice outside relationships.
Recognizing this helps us craft more productive responses:
- First, follow the now-old adage, “Don’t feed the trolls.” If someone posts a fake story, and you think they have simply been duped, certainly it is useful to point out the error with a more reliable source. Please do graciously. No one likes to be publicly humiliated. Sometimes a private message is better. But if you think the posting is really about proclaiming identity, ignore it. Don’t amplify its value by arguing. And if you must say something, here a private message is really better — you can convey your disapproval without providing the public display of discord that just strengthens their signal.
- Second, help promote a culture that reveres veracity. Check your sources before you post anything. Support newspapers and other organizations that do good, reliable reporting. Discourage people in your own community when they promote stories that feel good to you, but are, alas, untrue.
- Third, appreciate humor. Like fake news, jokes and satire are markers of identity — funny to insiders, and often incomprehensible or offensive to outsiders. They may be tasteless, they may be divisive but unlike fake news, they are not an assault on truth.
Information can bring people together or drive them apart. Sharing false information, or fake news, is divisive. It’s about claiming a separate territory, with its own rules and logic. Sharing true information is, ideally, the opposite. It’s about unifying people, not only rallying the ones who agree, but also persuading the ones who do not; it provides a common ground.
Ultimately, to remove the appeal of fake news, people need to value debate and discussion. They need to value reaching across to different communities, to discuss and debate; they need to choose not to build walls against the Other, but to engage and persuade.