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How fake news influences our decisions

Fake news isn’t going away any time soon. Yes, people are on the case and some ethical and social responsibility is being taken up by the platforms that used to distribute the links, but the success of the early producers of these sites has spawned a plethora of copy cats who are busily creating new fake news (though, it seems a bit weird to refer to the old fake news as authentic and the others as ‘fake-wash’).

Fake news has made the non-fake newspaper headlines, and as the salience of this practice is raised surely it will become less affective. In fact, was it ever affective? Wouldn’t any right-minded person realise that the Pope did neither endorse Trump nor his position on everything from Mexican walls to prosecuting Hillary, sorry ‘crooked Hillary’.

Well, depending upon your definition of ‘right-minded’, you could argue that people are never really right-minded. They are instead biased in their thinking and heavy users of shortcuts to avoid burning up energy thinking analytically about everything that confronts them. Confirmation bias is one example of how we accept, and even seek out, information that confirms our view. We are childlike rather than right-minded in the way we test our understanding of the world by being much more aware and observant of things that confirm our beliefs.

But more insidious than our cognitive biases is the way so much information is noted at a subconscious level. It’s called ‘low processing’ which means what it sounds like – we don’t exert any effort to process the information and it gets stored at an unconscious level. A very large proportion of the advertising we are exposed to is subject to unconscious low processing, which is not to say that it is not effective. Indeed there is a body of knowledge (much of it generated by Robert Heath of Bath University working with the IPA) that shows low processing is a more effective way of embedding memories and that they have a longer term decay rate than more conscious cognitive processing.

It sounds counter-intuitive that something you can’t remember can not only be effective but be more effective than something you can remember. Yet, experiments with a variety of different media demonstrate the truth of this. When people read magazines containing an advertisement their ratings of the brand will improve (or change in some way) afterwards, even though they don’t remember seeing the ad. And what’s more their ratings will remain at the new level some weeks afterwards. By comparison, those who have the ad pointed out to them and are asked to look at it and tell the researcher what is being communicated show an immediate shift in ratings of the brand, but do not show the same long term change in their views of the brand. Instead they revert to close to their pre-exposure ratings.

Why? Because low processing uses an emotional ‘gut level’ response to what has been seen unconsciously and stores it in the part of our brain where memories are laid down. These are the memories that we access when we then think about the category so they contribute to our mental availability of the brand. Whereas an ad that our brain considers consciously involves our cognitive analytical brain which, after having worked out what’s going on, decides if it is important enough to remember – and by important our brain means important to sustaining life, not important to choosing the right brand of soda. Unless the ad has triggered a strongly emotional response (in which case the emotion will create a memory that can be retrieved in the future) it will be consigned to the ‘not important’ bucket found only in short-term memory.

Now apply the same principles to fake news. Most of it appears around the edge of the screen that contains the content you are actively viewing/reading.  Again research has shown that the ads around content are absorbed even when there is no conscious awareness of seeing them – indeed people will confidently deny the ads were present but still show shifts in their rating and descriptions of the brand’s associations.

So, what happens when instead of ads there are ‘ads’ with links to fake news websites. We can’t dismiss it as a case of confirmation bias selecting only those who are already disposed to believing the story, leaving others to ignore it.  For sure, a worrying number of people consciously reacted to these links and followed them to the full story. But what of the majority of ‘right-minded’ people for whom unconscious low processing has caused a memory to be stored, despite not clicking on the link. The memory might be ‘Pope endorses Trump’ and lies deep seated in our brain without any analytical thought to dissect the facts.

How many of you didn’t realise you even saw that link but now you have been reminded of it here, realise that in fact you did see it? We don’t know how much that might influence people’s overall view of the political merits of the candidates nor the subsequent action they took at voting time, but if we are confident that advertising works this way then why shouldn’t fake news work that way too, making it a truly disturbing hidden persuader.

Colleen Ryan is head of strategy at TRA.
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