How Fake News Works

Because finding reality is so complicatedand yet integral to a stable democratic society, it has become a critical issue for humanity to address collectively and individually. This has most obviously manifested itself as fake news, which pits the interests of the individual, society and economy against each other. 

Evolution has shaped humankind to survive, but survival and knowing the truth are sometimes at odds with one another. One of the primary ways in which truth and survival have been at odds is in tribalism. Primitive humans had to live in groups to survive, for protection from both predators and scarcity. To keep groups of humans together, narratives formed about what was good and bad in the world; some of these narratives manifested as myths or religious traditions, while others formed as political hierarchies. These stories allowed individuals to work together based on the common values of the group. Some experts linkthis evolutionary impulse and the polarization of contemporary politics.

Today, with globalization present in more aspects of life than ever, tribalism creates many negative biproducts with little additional benefit. Racism, homophobia and extreme nationalism all stem from a sense of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. The large threats that face humanity are often communal; climate change and fake news affect hundreds of millions or even billions of people. The tribalism that once allowed human survival now threatens human thriving. 

Democracy attempts to solve this problem by binding many people into a single group and giving them all a say in the values and traditions of the tribe through voting. This tribe, or nation, is created with the assumption that the citizens will be informed and active. When leaders take the rights of information or action from a group of people, a democracy ceases to exist. Propaganda and repression of liberties are trademarks of power shifting away from the general population to a few powerful individuals, so it is a bad sign for democracy. 

For this reason, fake news is extremely dangerous for democracy. It undercuts the tribal mentality that transcends previous lines of class and political party for the good of a nation by reinforcing fears about different groups, whether race, gender or religion. Leaders, whether political, economic or philosophical, that use fake news can do more than just force people to obey their ideas; they can cause the people to agree with their ideas by exploiting their evolutionary tendencies. In a sense, changing the perception of the public is more powerful than forcing a rule of law with military force. It is easy to pass most laws when liesto the public are accepted as truth because of constant reinforcement of fake news. 

Unfortunately, fake news is economically incentivized. Free-market capitalism has, via consumer choice, opted for an internet largely supported by advertising revenues. In this system, more clicks mean more money. Because fake news often incites outrage which manifests itself in comments, likes and shares online, it is financially incentivized. This problem is exacerbated by social media algorithms that see fake news as more relevant to other users because it receives so many clicks, forcing it to find its way onto other timelines. Social media companies also profit from the advertising space when users come back for more, exploiting the evolutionary tendency to find others that agree with and are part of a particular tribe. The money from fake news not only incentivizes it but lends economic power to those already changing the perspectives of voting citizens. 

Though humans cannot change their biological tendencies, they can do something about the crisis of fake news in capitalistic democracies. One possible measure is to sacrifice a little freedom in the free market to save the entire governmental system through regulating fake news online. Another suggestion is to move to a more responsible revenue system online, whether that is smarter advertising on reputable sites or paywalls. Individuals can take action as well by learning tofact checkinformation online. By checking for accuracy before sharing an article, some small part of the ad revenue from that site can be withheld, as well as some small piece of misinformation kept from the timelines of others. It will take a resurgence of the old, transcendental tribalism that includes everyone to stop misinformation and secure democracy. Like the democracy itself, everyone must play a small part to make larger changes in fighting fake news. 

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