Sarah Leeson: Fighting mass gullibility

Thursday, February 16, 2017 - 2:52pm

Similar to many University of Michigan students, I pride myself on my critical thinking and analytical skills. By now, as I careen toward graduation without brakes, I feel I am fairly well versed in deriving meaning from everything. I can sprout arguments about anything from yogurt advertisements to complex issues, such as whether or not a five-year-old would make an effective president. However, I seem to have one massive shortcoming: I am somehow inexcusably, consistently and massively gullible, and I am not alone in this. When it comes to what we read online, it seems that all of us are consistently and problematically easy to fool.

My professors have tried to train this out of me by demonstrating how to challenge the ideas put in front of me by engaging with them skeptically, yet I am still one of the most gullible people I know. Recently, a friend joked that our professor’s first name wasn’t actually Seder but Apple Cider. And I 100 percent believed him. I don’t think he was even trying to trick me. I just said to myself, “Sure, why not,” and accepted it.

While I’d like to attribute my occasional readiness to believe what I’m told to my inherent belief in the good of others, I think the truth might have more to do with me being an idiot or having too much blind faith that my friends won’t steer me wrong. Perhaps even more likely is that I have a lazy streak when it comes to fact checking, and I know I’m not alone in this. As Americans saw repeatedly during this past election, fake news (stories that are completely fabricated or bent so far from the truth as to be unrecognizable as reality) is increasingly an issue on social media, spreading baseless conspiracy theories and misinformation, like the claim that the Pope endorsed President Donald Trump or that former President Barack Obama  tried to ban the Pledge of Allegiance.

Fake news might not be an issue if not for the fact that a large majority of people is falling for it. According to a study from Stanford's History Education Group, students are alarmingly bad at spotting fake news and were unable to draw logical conclusions about the bias, source validity and factuality of what they were reading. This can have some pretty massive implications for our democracy. Voting relies on the assumption that voters can make educated decisions, which requires having valid information. How do we make informed decisions when we can’t know what’s true?

Facebook has reportedly begun taking steps to correct the prominence of fake news on its site, but it might be too late; knowing that there is convincing fake news circulating, it seems as if nothing is trustworthy. With the rising distrust of the media, how do we know what is real? What’s true? This implication that the media can’t be trusted at all is scarier and harder to battle than simply having to see articles circulating on Facebook that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) is actually part turtle.

Beyond the confusion that this matter presents to citizens about what and whom to believe, an even more concerning trend is being revealed: Politicians now have the simple cop-out response of calling things that they disagree with or don’t like “fake news.” Recently, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used this claim of “fake news” in regards to an Amnesty International report that cited human rights violations in military prisons under his regime.

In dismissing the report as fake, Assad demonstrated how simple it is to make massive problems essentially disappear. He didn’t want to respond to the allegations, so he discredited them without proof, and suddenly it’s just his word against the media’s.

Assad isn’t the only one using this tactic: Trump and his staff are also known for crying “fake news” when unflattering stories surface. “Saturday Night Live” even spoofed such an occurrence when an actor representing CNN had to plead from a cage during a press briefing that "We're not fake news!” 

Herein lies the real danger of this phenomenon. In creating a quick, plausible excuse to cast aspersions on the media, it creates a space for the subjects of those stories, namely politicians, to create their own convenient truths and realities.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a simple way out of this. Regaining trust is easier said than done, especially when it comes to an industry like mass media, which we are inherently asked to trust.

John Oliver had a segment on his HBO show, “Last Week Tonight,” this past week, in which he issued a plea for personal responsibility in fact checking, asking viewers to “commit to defending the reality of facts” on a personal level: “Ask questions of yourself, like, ‘is this a source I know and recognize? Has anyone fact checked this? Does it link to primary sources? And do those sources match what the story says?’” Oliver suggests.

Really, all I can do is request that every concerned citizen questions what they are being told, whether it’s coming from friends, social media or authority figures. Every single one of us can work on our inductive and deductive reasoning skills, and I would know, because I’ve been told it’s true and who am I to question it?

Sarah Leeson can be reached at sleeson@umich.edu.