Good People Spread Fake News

Good People Spread Fake News
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There's this webpage making the rounds on Facebook that generates a tweet from Donald Trump about you on demand. Some are insulting, others are full of praise, but they're all pretty funny. Instead of repeating it on Facebook, I decided to tweet mine, with an explanation in Spanish that I was bound to upset Trump sooner or later. I included an emoji wink.

I got some retweets and a few congratulations, so I thanked them, adding another wink or a “hahaha,” a little unsure if they got the joke. But it wasn't until a Spanish friend went a little nuts reposting it on Twitter and then Facebook, that things got weird. On Twitter, I didn't mind letting the few people who believed that Trump had set his sights on me go on believing it. Why not? It's flattering in a way that I can take with a grain of salt because most of my Twitter followers are Spanish.

Let me explain. Spain's President Rajoy is much too stiff to let loose on Twitter, but if he had Trump's disposition, it wouldn't be hard at all to believe that a political writer like me could attract his ire. Spain's a small country and the political world here is a village. So, for my Spanish friends, it's not a hard leap to make: I'm an American who writes about politics. Surely, Trump wouldn't like most of what I write, but since most of it is in Spanish, there's about a zero possibility that he's read it.

So, while it's entirely understandable that a few of my Spanish Twitter followers believed it, what surprised me was when my American friends started getting into the action on Facebook. I figured, they would have seen the fake Trump tweet generator and call out the post as fake. But no, shares, wows and congratulations came pouring in. And I found myself privately messaging people because I felt terrible about publicly outing them for sharing this fake news that I should have stopped sooner. The original hilarity of it, the fake tweet and the few who were taken in by it, became tinged with embarrassment. These were my friends spreading fake news that I had put out there for a laugh.

No doubt, this is is by far the most unimportant fake news anecdote you have read. Who cares if some people thought Trump tweeted about me? Well, I think this story's inconsequentiality is what makes it useful to bring home a few points about how these false stories grab our attention and spread. The first being that fake news is by no means the exclusive domain of those other, stupid people. Stop judging this faceless 'them' and instead look at your own Facebook feed. Good people, with good intentions share all sorts of stories that have a dubious relationship with the truth.

The second point is that fake news works when there's a hint of truth in it. I write about politics and have just enough of a public profile in Spain that this highly coveted insult from Trump wasn't entirely unimaginable. And if this fake news has both a hint of truth and fits into your already established world view, then you are going to want to believe and share. This is the third and most interesting point.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains, in his book The Righteous Mind, that we make decisions at the gut level and then we justify them with reasoning. Emotional decision first, rational justification later. Keeping this in mind, it's not hard to understand why all of us have unwittingly spread fake news at one point or another. We see something that resonates and we're quick to click.

It would have been ridiculously easy for anyone to check into whether this tweet was real or not: just pop on to Trump's Twitter feed or click on the image to find that it wasn't an actual tweet at all. Quite a few people did just that, giving the lie to my fake tweet on my friends' timelines and coming across a bit like scoldy party poopers.

It's much more fun to think that a friend was insulted by the Donald and I'm extremely grateful to all my friends who believed in me enough to believe that this was true. That said, I'm with the scolds, at least when it comes to stories that matter. Take a little time to verify anything that seems a little too good to be true before clicking that share button. (With the exception of this article, of course. Go ahead, share it all you want.)

Alana Moceri is an international relations analyst, commentator and writer and professor at the Universidad Europea de Madrid. You can follow her on Twitter @alanamoceri or Facebook.

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