Why Are So Many Smart People Being Misguided by Fake News?

By S. Alease Ferguson, Ph.D., LPCC

The Issue

Answering the question of why so many smart people keep getting misguided by fake news has a lot to do with our lifestyles and brain functioning. Since the 2016 presidential election, Americans have been exposed to a worldwide media environment fueled by disinformation and misinformation. The primary sources pushing false and misleading information include conspiracy theorists, Russian trolls, political parties, social media, right-leaning newspapers and media outlets, and special interest groups who want to push their perspectives into the mainstream. As such, they are not likely to offer a fair and balanced view. The result of disinformation efforts is to influence public opinion concerning the issues such as:

Ø  Political party selection or the decision to vote or not vote.

Ø  Creating voter suppression efforts that limit the rights of poor, minority and rural communities to vote and have their votes counted freely.

Ø  Redistricting and gerrymandering to favor Republican voters and gain more power in the coming decades.

Ø  Prison gerrymandering that applies the minority prisoners to the census counts of rural white communities rather than their urban communities of residence.

Ø  Striking down women’s rights to reproductive health services.

Ø  Dilemmas on the right to bear arms and the consequences of gun violence.

Ø  Creating an anti-science perspectives that have led to what is known as the “infodemic” surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic linked to anti-vaxing and the encouragement of ineffective medical and veterinary compounds that lead to death.

Ø  Calling the teaching of factual Black history in America critical race theory that aims to make white children feel shame.

Ø  Using the “stop the steal” movement surrounding the 2020 presidential election to invalidate the Biden Presidency, despite the election results.

Key Definitions



Disinformation Refers to deliberately misleading information, which is commonly known as fake or false news
Misinformation is the spreading of incorrect information regardless of the intent.
Infodemic Since the global emergence of the COVID-19 virus in 2020, the rapid creation and spread of misleading or fabricated news, images, and videos has been rapidly created. Like the virus, the infodemic is highly contagious and grows exponentially while complicating the COVID-19 pandemic response efforts. Immunizing the public against misinformation (who. int)

In the article Research Finds Social Media Users Are More Likely to Believe Fake News (forbes.com) , Escalante (2020) notes that scary and dangerous misinformation spreads much faster on social media than good news. Thus, misinformation content is viral.

The Magnitude of the Problem
In 2019 the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) Disinformation in Society Report surveyed 2,200 American adults. IPR gathered information on the prevalence of

1) disinformation and perceptions,

2) a view of who is responsible for sharing disinformation,

3) the levels of trust for different information sources, and

4) parties accountable for combating disinformation. It found that 65% of Americans consider misinformation a significant national problem, while 63% think disinformation is a pressing issue. Other key study findings include:

Ø  4 in 5 (80%) of Americans report feeling confident in their ability to identify fake news, and 47% say that they will review additional sources.

Ø  78% of respondents report seeing at least one form of fake news every week, and 51% view or hear fake news daily.

Ø  45% of Republicans report that former President Donald J. Trump is responsible for the spread of disinformation, while 72% of Democrats hold him responsible.

Neuroscience News recently published an article titled Who’s More Susceptible to Believing Falsehoods?   It highlights the work of Ohio State University communication professors R. Kelly Garrett and Robert M. Bond (2021). Their article “Conservatives’ Susceptibility to Political Misperceptions.” reveals that when:

Ø  “Conservatives and liberals alike are presented with fact-based occurrences, conservatives are less able to distinguish political truths from falsehoods, and the glut of right-wing media organizations producing politically incorrect content is likely to blame.”

Ø  “If more of the factually accurate stories were labeled political and benefiting either liberal or conservative positions – liberals became better than conservatives at distinguishing true from false statements.”

Ø  “Both liberals and conservatives tend to make errors that are influenced by what is good for their side.

They also indicate that “the deck is stacked against conservatives because most misinformation supports conservative positions.” As a result, conservatives are more often led astray.

Disinformation Traps
Today’s fake news seeks to push the values and perspectives of the political right. But how it gets inside of us is linked to the lifestyle factors that make us easy prey to “disinformation and how the human brain works.” For example, it could be that our age and limited life experience, use of electronic devices, and failure to keep up with the issues slows our ability to separate fact from fiction. The lifestyle factors that make us susceptible to disinformation include:

Using your cell phone as your only window to the world news limits your supply of accurate information.

Not reading or talking much with your family elders who lived and learned from the eras of Jim Crow to desegregation, the Holocaust, and various world revolutions.

Clinging to the false belief that our decisions to not get involved with the issues that most profoundly affect your life is OK. Thus, not recognizing that your failure to vote means your loss of voice and the right to stand up and be counted.

Problematic Brain and Perceptual Factors

Beyond lifestyle, the neurological and perceptual dimensions of our brains cause both true and false information to get stuck in our heads. Key among them is:

  • Misattribution refers to those times where we can retrieve things from memory but cannot remember their original source. Misattribution also helps advertising sell and taglines become gospel.
  • Dramatization involves coloring news and information as either exciting or frightening, single headline exposure can have a bold and gripping impact on imaginations.
  • Confabulation:  occurs when our brain fills in gaps and missing memories. It is not lying but remembering details that never happened.
  • Misleading post-event information: is learned after an event that changes your memory of an event. This is why eyewitness testimony is considered highly unreliable;
  • Priming refers to prepping the consumer with information leading up to the event to be perceived. It is also commonly known as suggestibility.


Want to Learn More About Disinformation?
The only way to counter the effects of disinformation is to dedicate yourself to learning the facts. Here are some great resources for improving your grasp of fact versus fiction and the pitfalls of intentionally misleading consumers. The following literary and electronic resources can help you stay current and find truth based in your assessment of the news:

1. Consult the CRAAP Test (2017) https://library.csuchico.edu/sites/default/files/craap-test.pdf which offers new skill sets for lessening our susceptibility to disinformation. The Meriam Library at California State University at Chico created the tool to determine whether published and electronically printed information is reliable. They stress the need to assess information along the continua of:

  • Currency (the timeliness of the data)
  • Relevance (the importance of the data for your needs)
  • Authority (the source of the report)
  • Accuracy (the reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the content)
  • Purpose (the reason the information exists)

2. Refer to the 2020 article by the World Health Organization’s entitled Immunizing the public against misinformation (who. int) to learn more about the Infodemic and its consequences for global public health, and the coronavirus response and eradication.  World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “We are not just battling the Coronavirus, we’re also battling the trolls and conspiracy theorists that push misinformation and undermine the outbreak response.” Foremost the WHO Infodemic Program has a number of online courses and workshops for researchers, practitioners, and the public outlining critical disinformation challenges.

3. The Rand Corporation offers a listing of Tools That Fight Disinformation Online. It is a guide to 83 websites that can assist you in screening out false information sources. You can find it at:  https://www.rand.org/research/projects/truth-decay/fighting-disinformation/search.html

Finally, becoming an educated media consumer is vital to preserving and enriching our democracy.




Wentura D, Rothermund K. Priming is not priming. Social Cognition. 2014; 32(Supplement):47-67. doi:10.1521/soco.2014.32.supp.47

Immunizing the public against misinformation

Aug 25, 2020, Immunizing the public against misinformation (who. int)

Research Finds Social Media Users Are More Likely to Believe Fake News (Forbes Magazine)

Alison Escalante Aug 03, 2020,08:30am Contributor Science

I write about the science of performance. Research Finds Social Media Users Are More Likely to Believe Fake News (forbes.com)

Conservatives’ susceptibility to … – Science Advances


Jun 01, 2021, · By R. Kelly Garrett, Robert M. Bond Science Advances Jun 02, 2021: eabf1234 Conservatives are less able to distinguish truths and falsehoods than liberals, and the information environment helps explain why.

    • Author: R. Kelly Garrett, Robert M. Bond
    • Publish Year: 2021

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