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Study: Fake News Shape Reality Even If We Know They're Not True

Dec 09, 2016 09:44 AM EST

"Believe lies long enough until they become real" may be a scary truth after all. Stories describing events that never happened, or fake news, have been so prolific in the past few months, even to the point that tech giants such as Google and Facebook vowed to do something about them.

But are people really so gullible? The answer appears to be yes -- even if the fake news is too obvious to believe.

According to New Scientist, the best circumstance is to observe the recent U.S. elections that led to the controversial win of President-elect Donald Trump and how it impacted the rise of trends in history.

An analysis by journalist Craig Silverman said the top 20 fake stories in circulation of his time overtook the top 20 stories from top publishers in the country. Meanwhile, Paul Horner, a publisher of fake news, believes Donald Trump won because of fake news. 

He told the Washington Post that his "followers don't fact-check anything -- they'll post everything, believe anything."

Silverman added that his study involving rumors back in 2014 led him to see that shares and social interactions around fake news articles are too immense versus those that debunked them. Meaning it seems fake news stories are engineered to appeal to hopes and fears and aren't constrained in reality.

Interestingly, it appears this trend goes way back. Researchers found out that early on that the more rumors are told, the more they seem plausible. This means that a rumor out of mild suspicion can drastically change public opinion.

This was demonstrated empirically in 1997 when researchers in the United States quizzed college students on what statements they thought were true or false. They figured out that just repeating the statements at a later date were enough to increase the likelihood that they're believable. 

However, there remains to be hope, even in small numbers. A recent study had U.S. high school students see pictures of what appears to be "deformed" flowers near the ill-fated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Less than 20 percent had doubts about the source of the photo, and 40 percent considered it strong evidence regardless of the lack of information.

Sadly, a lot of students also tend to place huge trust on search engines and even think the top results were true. This can be a cause of alarm as fake news can appear on the top parts of Google search results.   

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