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mental health mondays :: the big lies

the phrase "the big lie" was coined by adolf hitler to describe an untruth on such a grand scale, one that could seem as all-encompassing and passionately communicated that it overcame its self-evident falseness and became accepted. the idea behind it is that the idea would be so ridiculous that no one would believe that a thinking person could make it up. he was onto something there, because there are plenty of examples of people believing ridiculous things. i remember being told in all sincerity that if you dreamt that you died, you actually would die. the question of how people actually evaluated that got skipped right over, because damn, it sounds just crazy enough to work.

is adolf had been born a hundred years after he was, he would likely have made an excellent purveyor of "fake news", something which has come to the public's attention since some have proposed that its omnipresence may have helped tilt the outcome of the american election in favour of eventual winner donald trump. people would see stories repeated on social media- often reading only the associated headlines, which are always written to be as sensationalistic as possible- and assume that the frequency with which they were repeated was evidence of their veracity. in their desperate pursuit of bigger audiences, the mainstream media, those who have built [possibly undeserved] reputations for diligent fact-checking and research, have occasionally been fooled by 'big lies' circulated on social media. the new iphone will have a hologram feature? you couldn't make that up! [except, of course, that someone did.]

but people don't depend on mainstream media to validate what they see, by and large. in fact, many believe that the media shows a liberal bias, a corporatist bias, or a conservative bias, whereby new ideas are ridiculed simply for being new. and those people get their news from sites that validate the things that they feel are true, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. and, in the election, trump's big lies about illegal immigrants being murderers and rapists, the real unemployment rate being 42%, or climate change being a hoax perpetrated by the chinese, had relatively little effect compared to clinton's much more banal half-truths about her hawkish record on military interventions, her shift in position on marriage equality, or her former support for the for-profit prison industry. [in fact, former secretary clinton has a pretty solid record on politifact, not that it helped.]

but what does this have to do with mental health? well, it turns out that there is some psychology behind the appeal of fake news. when it comes to politics, there is the presence of confirmation bias, whereby we seek out information that supports views that we already have, down to the way we phrase questions or terms when searching for information, making it more likely that we will turn up sources that reflect our point of view. the basis of confirmation bias is irrational, which sounds unexceptional enough- people believe irrational things all the time, right? except that belief in irrational or disproved ideas is one of the criteria for mental illness. and aren't we inundated with media images of people who are defined as crazy because of their belief in alien takeovers of the planet or massive government plots to do with placing fluoride in water? and don't such people feed their beliefs by placing an inordinate weight on the opinions of others who share their views?

there hasn't been enough work done on determining the point at which confirmation bias tips into the waters of pathology, but i suspect that the next four years are going to see that continuum tested from different points on the political spectrum.

however, confirmation bias only explains why we fall for fake news that we already agree with. the fact is that there are plenty of cases where we believe stories [like the one about dreaming of your death resulting in your actual death] that don't relate to our other views at all.

well, it turns out that we aren't just biased towards those who share our views, but towards those we normally turn to for information. despite the importance of tracing a story to its original source as a way of evaluating its credibility, one professor conducted a study that revealed people were likely to believe a story they saw on a site they turned to regularly for news, and did not generally bother to check the sources on stories from those sites. so, once we've made a decision to place our trust in a certain source, we stop questioning that source.

in addition, there is the bias i mentioned earlier, that simply seeing something repeated is tantamount to credibility in our minds, unless we make it a habit of questioning everything. in the age of the information glut, trust seems like a luxury we can't afford, and yet paranoia is still considered a sign of mental illness. again, the phrase "that's what they want you to believe" is a trope of the portrayal of mental disorders.

and even if you do have an inquisitive, critical mindset, the repetition of fake news is likely to have an effect anyway, just because your mind starts to accept what it sees all the time as reliable information, even if it's something they would have questioned at first. it's a known psychological phenomenon called the 'continuous influence effect'. it's like our brains' tendency to fight to establish credibility in media finally becomes exhausted and just lets the tidal wave of bullshit wash over us. it's not that we accept the specifics of fake reports, but we tune out and just seeing the words repeated starts to create associations.

the more fake news sites proliferate, of course, and the greater their influence, the more this comes close to being a public health issue. after all, if none of us are able to see the difference between good research and no research, facts become a quaint relic of a previous era, and we're all that guy with the tinfoil hat talking about how the sun is an illuminati plot.

i'm personally a fan of making media literacy a required course in schools and flagging sites that are known to have poor ratings from sites like politifact and snopes. [and for those of you who are thinking that you've heard of them making mistakes in the past, i say: those are just examples, and they're still better than nothing.] but those views are just pipe dreams. you know, crazy.

p.s. :: you will not die if you dream about your own death, i promise. 


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