Fake News and Cognitive Ability

Information Overload, Attitude, and Social Media are Odd Bedfellows

Photo of Kelly R. Smith   by Kelly R. Smith
Inundated with fake news
Inundated with fake news
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This article was updated on 02/22/21.

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Fake news has always been with us, but the advent of the internet and social media really gave it legs. And under President Donald Trump, it really became a “thing.” In view of the recent presidential election, it seems ironic that Trump called the press out on it in no uncertain terms while Joe Biden created a lot of it. He’s made a cottage industry of fabrications, either to pander certain groups or to puff out his own feathers.

For example, when he tried to generate support with civil liberties advocates by telling this outrageous lie. The Washingtonpost.com reported Biden’s quote, “This day, 30 years ago, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and entered into discussions about apartheid. I had the great honor of meeting him. I had the great honor of being arrested with our U.N. ambassador on the streets of Soweto trying to get to see him on Robbens Island.1 The problem? It never happened.

But that’s the problem with this kind of self-serving fake news. It sticks. And, it forms and solidifies opinions to some degree. But do those opinions remain set in stone? Even after fabrications have been fact-checked and exposed as fraud? It’s really a sliding scale; it depends on the level of the cognitive ability of the recipient.

What is Cognitive Ability?

In order to understand this sliding scale, it is important to understand what cognitive ability is. Sharpbrains.com says, “Cognitive abilities are brain-based skills we need to carry out any task from the simplest to the most complex. They have more to do with the mechanisms of how we learn, remember, problem-solve, and pay attention, rather than with any actual knowledge. For instance, answering the telephone involves perception (hearing the ring tone), decision taking (answering or not), motor skill (lifting the receiver), language skills (talking and understanding language), social skills (interpreting tone of voice and interacting properly with another human being).”2

The Relationship Between Cognitive Ability and Attitude Adjustment

Changing one’s opinions after learning that the initial reporting was fake news is surprisingly rare. People are polarized and resist changing opinion. But a person with high cognitive ability (we might unscientifically say open-minded) will take the fact-checking under consideration and re-evaluate. The low cognitive will not. Others lie somewhere in between.

An experiment reported on by ScienceDirect said, “The present experiment (N = 390) examined how people adjust their judgment after they learn that crucial information on which their initial evaluation was based is incorrect. In line with our expectations, the results showed that people generally do adjust their attitudes, but the degree to which they correct their assessment depends on their cognitive ability. In particular, individuals with lower levels of cognitive ability adjusted their attitudes to a lesser extent than individuals with higher levels of cognitive ability. Moreover, for those with lower levels of cognitive ability, even after the explicit disconfirmation of the false information, adjusted attitudes remained biased and significantly different from the attitudes of the control group who was never exposed to the incorrect information.”3

Compounding this problem is the fact that the case can be made that the social media platforms are using their power of censorship to shape opinions, and further, to suppress those opinions that they don’t agree with. This is why there are so many congressional hearings (which just turn out to be lip service; congress members bloviate but then they just do a press conference).

Fake News and Social Media

It may be called “social” media, but it has become so much more than that. Dustin Carnahan, an assistant professor of communications at Michigan State University’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences, explains it thus, “We’re reaching a critical point regarding what role social media should play in society as these platforms — and how we use them — have evolved. Instead of being places where people stay connected and share the details of their lives, they’re increasingly being used as sources of information. A recent Pew survey found nearly six in 10 people regularly use social media for news and while it’s not their only news outlet, it’s an important one. As a result, the quality of information people receive from social media is becoming a bigger question.”4

Take for example, the recent situation, prior to the presidential election, when Twitter censored the New York Post’s posting about an article detailing Hunter and Joe Biden’s shenanigans. Part of this was misusing the power of the office of vice president. “The story story outlined the connection between Hunter Biden, Joe Biden, and money then Vice-President Biden held hostage from the Ukraine until they dismissed the prosecutor that was investigating the energy giant Burisma, on whose board Hunter Biden sat.”5

Actions such as this go beyond shaping opinion; this is interfering in a presidential election. Twitter’s rationale? They said the story violated the policy against the “distribution of hacked material.” Hacked? They knew that as soon as the posting was made? In the end it turned out to be be not only true, but on Hunter Biden’s computer.

In the end, the proliferation of fake news, filtered news, and censorship by the mainstream media and social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook do have consequences. The end result is nothing less than social engineering. Corporate attitude adjustment.

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  1. Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post, Biden’s ridiculous claim he was arrested trying to see Mandela, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/02/25/bidens-ridiculous-claim-he-was-arrested-trying-see-mandela/
  2. SharpBrains, What are cognitive abilities and skills, and can we boost them?, https://sharpbrains.com/what-are-cognitive-abilities/
  3. Jonas De Keersmaecker, Arne Roets, ScienceDirect, ‘Fake news’: Incorrect, but hard to correct. The role of cognitive ability on the impact of false information on social impressions, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0160289617301617#ks0005
  4. MSUTODAY, The truth behind fake news and politics on social media, https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2020/the-truth-behind-fake-news-and-politics-on-social-media/
  5. Kelly R. Smith, I Can Fix Up My Home Blog, Social Media Censoring New York Post to Protect Biden, http://www.icanfixupmyhome.com/WPBlog1/2020/10/16/social-media-censoring-new-york-post-to-protect-biden/

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About the Author:

Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.

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