Fake news is generally considered false or misleading information presented as news. But what if “fake news” simply refers to reports that do not confirm our prior assumptions and beliefs? What might we learn from the information we are quick to dismiss as “fake news” if we open ourselves up to it?
We tend to only hear about the negative effects of fake news, among them that it potentially reduces the impact of real news and undermines trust in serious media coverage. The assumption underlying this argument — that we are capable of easily distinguishing what’s fake and what’s real — is questionable. Psychologists tell us that our tendency, especially in the face of emotionally charged issues, is to search for and favor information that confirms our prior beliefs. Since social media allows us to easily choose news outlets that agree with us, we can become siloed, cutting ourselves off from information we don’t like or that contradicts our prior assumptions.
So, “fake news” in our polarized world, rather than referring only to false information, may sometimes include factually accurate reports that do not confirm our prior beliefs.
Society has paid a high price for repeatedly calling the truth “fake” in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. History is replete with examples of the dangers of allowing our personal biases to maintain and even strengthen existing beliefs in the face of opposing evidence: A police detective who identifies a suspect early on, but then only seeks confirming rather than disconfirming evidence. A medical practitioner who prematurely focuses on a particular disorder and then seeks only confirming evidence.
Here's a particularly egregious example from history of the dangers of clinging to our biased notions of truth. Throughout time, lepers have been cast out of society and treated like criminals because of the known truth that this dreaded disease was highly contagious. The stigma associated with leprosy encouraged people to hide the illness and avoid treatment. It also intensified patient stress and reinforced long-standing socioeconomic inequalities.
By the mid-1940s, the American Public Health Association had begun to advise against isolating people with leprosy, claiming that there was very little actual danger of contagion. But most influential experts responsible for establishing and expanding existing leper colonies clung to their belief about the truth, determined to keep their traditional isolation policies and institutions in place. Their fears about contagion were amplified by the public's anxiety about the cursed disease.
In 1951, a medical pioneer named John Schmidt traveled to Paraguay, South America with the intention of changing all this. “They are people with dignity like you and me,” he said. “And scientific evidence suggests we no longer have any reason to isolate them in colonies. It’s time to move out of the dark ages.”
Schmidt’s outlandish claims that it was safe to allow lepers to run free among others in society were viewed as false and misleading information — i.e., fake news. For over a decade, he faced unrelenting opposition from his U.S. sponsors, the Paraguayan government, and neighboring villagers.
It wasn’t until the mid-1960s, that the American Leprosy Missions reversed its position and credited John Schmidt as “the first to establish a leprosy control program based on domiciliary treatment of the patient ... a courageous and pioneering venture. No one had tried it before.”
The formerly fake news about leprosy not being contagious has gradually become today’s accepted scientific norm. We now know that 95 percent of us are immune to the disease. And Schmidt’s home-based treatment has become the basis of leprosy control work throughout the world.
Fast forward to the present day: John Schmidt’s battles are playing themselves out again. While many continue to insist that the coronavirus is simply “fake news,” more Americans are dying of COVID-19 every three days than died in Afghanistan over the course of the twenty-year war (The Week, 9/3/21).
According to the Pew Research Center, Americans view fake news as a more serious social problem than racism, climate change, or terrorism. History suggests that a potentially even more harmful social problem may be our tendency to avoid “fake news” just because it does not conform to our assumptions. The challenge before us today is to open ourselves up to a wide range of information sources that both confirm and disconfirm our prior beliefs, so we can make informed assessments of truth and untruth.
The good news is that information disconfirming our assumptions is out there and readily available. We can as easily pick and choose news that disagrees with us as that which confirms our prior beliefs.
But will we let it in?
To those who claim that the rise of fake news is making it harder for people to see the truth, history responds: Don’t be so sure you know the “truth.”
The story of John Schmidt is taken from research evidence documented in “CALLED,” a book that deals with the 20th century leprosy pandemic by Fiol and Ed O’Connor to be released November 2, 2021.