The fight against the pervasive influence of fake news begins in our own brains, writes Elizabeth O’Neill
In the past few weeks a shocking declamation of ‘fake news’ crossed the Atlantic and took aim at a very real and shocking Irish story.
The president of the Catholic League based in the US denounced and denied the discovery of unclaimed infant remains from the Tuam Mothers and Babies Home.
Bill Donohue wrote, “If there was a Pulitzer for fake news, the competition would be fierce. Mass graves. Sexually assaulted women. Children stolen. It is all a lie.”
We know there is irrefutable, empirical scientific evidence from radiocarbon dating that shows the damning truth. Babies bodies were buried in up to 20 unmarked chambers in a disused septic tank.
In the past year, the notion of ‘fake news’ has not only gained currency but has become a political rallying cry against anyone objecting to unreasonable actions in a democracy.
It’s become so insidious that Facebook has finally rolled out a third-party fact-checking tool alerting users to ‘disputed content’.
In the fight against fake news, finding the objective, empirical truth is not as straightforward as we might think. It comes down to our own neural circuitry of perception.
A neuroscientist might argue we are the domicile of our own fake world, subjective truth and often fake news. So much of what we think we’re certain of is in fact wrong.
Daniel Glaser is a neuroscientist and the director of the Science Gallery in King’s College London. He tells me there is no one site within the brain where perception takes place. “Perception is about multiple comparisons between what you expect and what’s out there. That’s what perception is. You notice something when it either corresponds to or deviates from what you were expecting to see. Particularly when it’s different.
“So you make predictions about the world all the time — let’s say when you’re driving or cycling on your favourite common route to work you notice when something is discrepant from what you’re norms are so you perceive things by making comparisons between what you know and what’s coming in.”
This is also when learning takes place, when there are variations from our expectations.
So, effectively, we learn by checking our prejudices are correct. The world is not projected onto the back of our heads as a given. It’s a top down phenomenon where what we take in is mixed with what we already assume we know.
The ‘norms’ we associate with our environment are solidified by the age of about two. This is called pruning. Glaser says: ‘You’ve pruned away the perceptual abilities that you don’t need by about the age of two or a little bit older but it’s remarkably early that you get tuned into the environment that you’ve grown up in… you really are driven by your early childhood experiences.”
What also seems to be happening with the rise of social media and in our own liberal media, is a lack of difference. A Venn diagram of who we’re talking to and who’s listening to us would show a black hole of social groups being ignored. Disenfranchised people. Social media and algorithms that generate your content feed, nullify any diversity or difference.
Glaser alludes to the recent Brain Prize awarded in the UK to scientists who worked for 30 years on the so called reward mechanist. They found that dopamine neurons are at the heart of the brain’s reward system.
“Reward is very important and social media has become very good at driving our reward systems so the reward we get from a retweet, or a like on Facebook become connected into a biology. The problem is that what they’ve found — by not thinking about it, by giving us opinions that coincide with our own generates more rewards in the short term than opinions that differ. So the algorithms that generate your social media feeds have been reinforcing the bubble.”
But how can somebody blatantly call a true story ‘fake news’? “Going back to who we learn to perceive — people tend not to believe things that are discrepant from their belief systems and tend to believe more the things that are congruent and that’s just the way perception works. It’s all about validation of prejudices… we assign belief and disbelief not so much on the basis of the source but whether it accords with our beliefs or not.
“So if you think all media are constantly trying to smear the Church then a story like this (the Tuam Babies story) will be congruent with this idea, that it’s just some other attempt to blow up a scandal. However, if you believe that the Church is systematically corrupt and tied into the current abortion debate then you may even believe the babies were murdered.”
So can we change this neural circuitry and check our biases? Glaser says yes — learning rewires our brains, so he advocates seeking out difference and diversity.
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