Blind Fact Checkers

Someone in my Twitter timeline just retweeted a screenshot of Facebook’s new “disputed fact” notification. It pops up before Facebook redirects you to an article, with text that says the content is “disputed by fact-checking sites.”

You can see the tweet and the Facebook popup here.

It is important for people to have access to information about their own country and the world around them. We rely on the news to keep us informed to the best of their ability. Because the job is so important, I agree that the standards for the press must be held high. Any reasonable person would agree to that.

Now I want to contribute to the high standards by showing you a problem with fact checking. I love the news, and read it often, so I’m glad to help highlight this flaw.

As a student of persuasion (with much credit to Scott Adams), I study the ways our minds deceive us. Psychologists discovered a huge list of cognitive biases that stop us from seeing the world clearly. They are always active, and some are literally impossible to think yourself out of. The important one for today is confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is a perceptual filter that tries to block you from seeing information that conflicts with your point of view. It affects everything from how you interpret things, what you search for, and what you remember.

What happens when conflicting inputs get past your confirmation bias? It feels uncomfortable, and you experience cognitive dissonance. The degree of discomfort varies based on how strong the belief is, but it is often so strong that you can visibly observe someone experience it.

Any fact-checker will have preexisting beliefs, especially about a subject like politics. These beliefs cause the strongest forms of cognitive dissonance when challenged. The tension is released in a variety of ways, none of which involve changing your beliefs to match the new information. But sometimes the conflicting information doesn’t even get in.

One way confirmation bias tricks you is by making a true statement look false. It’s like you have some mental fuzz over the new information. You see it but don’t grasp the contents. The fact checkers will sit there at their computers, look at what someone wrote, and mentally discard anything that feels wrong. In this way, somebody who feels strongly that oranges are evil can deny the health benefits of their vitamins, even while a person who needs more vitamin C and glucose to work longer loves them.

This bias affects fact checkers in the offices of Fox News to Snopes to Al Jazeera equally. All of them. And Facebook is a social media organization, not a news outlet, so this clearly isn’t their job. I don’t see an immediate solution, but for now it helps to highlight it.

The other thing I see in Facebook’s “disputed fact” popup is pre-suasion.

Reading the words about doubt and “disputed accuracy” changes your physiology a little. Even if you read through the box, and even if you did trust the Associated Press and Snopes to do your fact checking for you, reading the text primes your body to doubt the words ahead of you. When you get to the page, you are already doubting what it says. In a subtle way, Facebook is essentially limiting their freedom of speech.

Facebook also has a moral conflict here. The board of Facebook and their employees no doubt support free speech, at least for themselves. But viewing conflicting information causes you discomfort, which you then associate with Facebook. So preventing you from seeing it by adding a “disputed fact” filter is in Facebook’s self-interest. Otherwise, you add negative associations with their website over time. You might think Facebook is looking out for the public with this new feature, but they’re probably looking out for themselves.


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