Opinion | ‘Fake news’ is like religion: It comforts people when they’re scared of the unknown

Those of you who are surprised that American politicians seem to be lying more and more often are in for a huge surprise: things are only going to get worse.

As someone who has studied the world faiths, I like to look at misinformation as a religion. After all, it is often spread to people when they are young, it provides comfort when people face the unknown, and it has reached nearly everyone in the entire world.

“Fake News” has truly spread like the gospel around the world, thanks to everything from our own hardwired brain chemistry to the internet.

We all know someone who is addicted to “fake news” or other forms of false information. It could be an aunt who thinks science is a tool for brainwashing, or a brother who spends all his time viewing conspiracy theory videos, or – if you can’t think of anyone in your life who fits this description – it could be you. In fact, we are all addicted to fake news… or at least we are all predisposed to believing in it. And that’s why it is taking over American politics.

I spent much of my life hoping that people would start paying attention to misinformation, which is defined as false information intentionally propagated to deceive, and disinformation, which is usually used to refer to inaccurate reports coming from a government organization. When I first heard the words “fake news,” I thought maybe that time had finally come. I was wrong. The term may have started off as a way to describe faulty or misleading information tainted with extreme political bias, but today it is used by people across the political spectrum to write off facts that make them look bad.

Ironically, the people who cry “FAKE NEWS!” at every media report that challenges their thinking are the same people who continually fall for false reports. This isn’t always because they are dumb, however. It’s partly because we are all pre-disposed to believing in narratives that support what we already think is true, and partly because of hazard detection in humans.

For example, after the 2016 election, we saw reports about conservatives being targeted more than liberals in fake news enterprises. According to multiple studies, it isn’t that Republicans are more stupid or gullible than their liberal counterparts; it’s because people who fall on the right side of the political spectrum tend to be more attuned to all threats – even imagined ones (Khazan, 2017). That means that, in this particular instance, at least, fake news is allowed to propagate largely because of a simple predisposition toward rapid fear responses. And here’s the kicker: those same fear responses exist because evolution favors them. It turns out “survival of the fittest” often means “survival of the safest,” and taking perceived threats seriously is likely to keep you out of harm’s way.

So, how do we fix a problem that’s based on the very nature of who we are as human beings?

When we’re talking about combating fake news, there are two different battlefields on which the metaphorical war can be waged. The first is on the personal level. We all know someone who is addicted to fake news, so we should start there. By talking to people one-on-one, and helping them think for themselves, we can make the difference in the lives of those we care about most. We can teach them how to question what they read, think for themselves, and track down the most reliable sources.

The second “battlefield” is a global one. When talking about false information, some solutions are going to be more effective on a society-wide scale. This comes in the form of programs, apps, and organizations that specifically work to fight misinformation being spread all over. By finding the best mechanisms and putting them into place, we can put a fail-safe on the world, and break the cycle of gullibility and indoctrination.

The truth is that there are several options when it comes to dealing with the spread of false information, and many types of it. We have to analyze the different incarnations of fake news, and then take the necessary steps to stop its proliferation. We should tackle the problem on as many fronts as possible, including personal and societal, and then go even deeper if it’s possible. The answer is to think more, to be more skeptical, and to understand the underlying issues better on our own. But that’s not all of the solution. We can also get a better idea of how news works, and how to check for reliable sources.

There are many other ways to fix this problem, and many of them haven’t been thought of yet. Hopefully this article will help get us at least part of the way there.

Featured image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr


David McAfee

David G. McAfee is a Religious Studies graduate, journalist, and author of No Sacred Cows: Investigating Myths, Cults, and the Supernatural. McAfee, who writes about science, skepticism, and faith, attended University of California, Santa Barbara and graduated with bachelor’s degrees in English and Religious Studies with an emphasis on Christianity and Mediterranean religions.