Bloomberg Government regularly publishes insights, opinions and best practices from our community of senior leaders and decision-makers. This column is written by Amy Showalter, a national authority on government relations best practices, grassroots and PAC influence.
“What the human being is best at doing is
interpreting all new information
so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”
— Warren Buffett
Most government relations professionals have been perplexed, concerned and challenged by the “fake news” dynamic. Perplexed because they cannot imagine why people do not see through “fake” stories and know the facts. Concerned because their own stakeholders, people who they should be leading, believe some of the “fake news.” And challenged because they don’t know how to lead their members / stakeholders through this climate. For the purposes of this article, I am defining “fake news” as beliefs that contradict the best available evidence in the public domain.
To lead in the “fake news” environment, it’s important to know where it really comes from (it’s not where you think), and how to lead your stakeholders away from it. Your public policy results depend on their engagement. If they believe the falsehoods, you have an overwhelming persuasion challenge.
Because the research on this topic (Flynn, Nyhan and Reifler, 2017) includes over 180 citations, I’m hitting the highlights regarding the allure and source of “fake news” and how to help your stakeholders (and you) recognize it, and communicate over, around and through it.
The Real Scoop on Fake News
Popular opinion tells us that the source of “fake news” stems from cable news outlets and social media feeds. However, scholars know little about whether these dynamics actually increase the acceptance of fake news, primarily because many people who derive news from these sources are highly ideological and already hold misperceptions.
These individuals help accelerate the integration of fake news into the culture. However, they are playing upon existing biases and psychological principles (we’ll get to dealing with them later in this article). Thus, it’s important to understand confirmation bias and how filter bubbles reinforce bias.
Researchers have found that it’s not the partisan cable news outlets that cause misperceptions, but that the following types of people are partially responsible for the spread of fake news:
- Politically knowledgeable individuals
- Partisan individuals (those who we tend to covet in our grassroots organizations. They are more engaged in politics and find it harder to ignore “fake news” that may confirm their existing biases).
- “Legislative elites” (elected officials)
The Basics: Bias and Bubbles
Confirmation bias is our tendency to selectively accept information which confirms our pre-existing beliefs or ideas. Confirmation bias is pronounced in the case of ingrained, ideological, or emotionally charged views. Failing to interpret information in an unbiased way can lead to serious misjudgments. By becoming aware of this, we can learn to identify it in ourselves and be cautious of data which seems to immediately support our views.
The concept of filter bubbles was written about by Eli Pariser, the CEO of Upworthy, a website dedicated to promoting meaningful, positive content. In his book Filter Bubbles, Pariser explained how Google searches bring up vastly differing results depending on the history of the user. He cites an example in which two people searched for “BP” (British Petroleum). One person saw news related to investing in the company. The other received information about the BP oil spill. The existence of filter bubbles is finally leading to widespread concern. Pariser writes:
“Democracy requires citizens to see things from one another’s point of view, but instead we’re more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead we’re being offered parallel but separate universes.… Personalization filters serve a kind of invisible ‘autopropaganda,’ indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown.”
– Eli Pariser, Filter Bubbles
Rinse and Repeat
Another psychological tenant of information processing is that the more information is repeated, the more we believe it to be true, whether or not it is true. Therefore, the constant social media feeds, blog posts, and cable TV outlets repeating the same information make people think the “news” is true, regardless of the facts. This explains the frustration of many large organizations that can’t seem to get traction with the public on the “truth” of their issues. Mistruths are repeated, and people assume they are true.
Lighting It Up: Elites and Legislators as Fake News Fuel
Many elected officials lament that they are the victims of “fake news.” That they are so misunderstood due to nefarious online chatter. No doubt that chatter frames impressions, but researchers at Dartmouth College and the University of Exeter have found that lawmakers and candidates are, indeed, a part of the problem.
The researchers found that polarization causes people to shift their opinions in the direction of partisan elites, regardless of the types of arguments they promote. Many of us, particularly in the grassroots profession, believe that lawmakers are empty vessels filled by our advocacy messages. While that is true to an extent, (and as we found in our Grassroots Influence Pulseresearch) candidates and legislators are leading opinions rather than always following them as many assume.
So, the challenge for government relations professionals is, how do we move people towards the facts and away from the fake?
Toward the Facts and Away from the Fake
We can’t overhaul online algorithms, (at least not yet, we can only hope for improvement there) but there are incremental steps, that when consistently applied, can reduce the prevalence of the blind acceptance of “fake news.”
1. Information from legislative elites who share the ideology or partisanship of an audience can mitigate the fake news effect.
We are less apt to accept corrections to fake news when they come from someone of a different political affiliation. The researchers found that “disagreeing with one’s political party requires additional cognitive effort.”
The bottom line: When fake news affects your cause, who is correcting the record? As with many influence tactics, the devil is in the details. The research shows that lawmakers similar to the recipient of the fake news can be more effective than other messengers in pointing them to the truth.
2. Altercast your audiences.
Altercasting is a technique where you imbue your audience or listener with positive characteristics, such as, “You’re the kind of association member who understands the importance of evaluating the evidence on both sides of an argument. Good citizens like you do that kind of thing.” Researchers have found that people are more willing to adjust their attitudes in response to new information when they are approached with this technique.
3. Fact checks to mitigate the fake
Nyhan and Reisler (2015) conducted a field experiment where they reminded a large sample of state lawmakers of the risks to their re-election and reputations from fact checkers. They found that those reminders reduced the likelihood the legislators would make a claim that would receive a negative rating from PolitiFact, a fact-checking website that rates statements by elected officials and others.
That experiment provides some applications for government relations professionals. Many organizations provide “key vote” scorecards to legislators, alerting them to upcoming votes that will be scrutinized, communicated to the organization’s membership, and used to evaluate that legislator as a candidate for future organizational support.
The bottom line: In addition to or instead of a “key vote” tool, could you explore the use of a “fact check” record? Could you notify your stakeholders of legislators who promote erroneous information regarding your issues, your stakeholders, etc.?
Test Your Confirmation Bias – How Open are You to the Facts?
This article can help you assess how confirmation bias affects you. Consider looking back over the previous paragraphs and asking:
Which parts did I automatically agree with?
Which parts did I ignore or skim over without realizing?
How did I react to the points which I agreed/disagreed with?
Did this post confirm any ideas I already had? Why?
What if I thought the opposite of those ideas?