Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway touched a nerve—to put it mildly—when she coined the phrase “alternative facts” in a January 2017 interview defending Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false claim that President Donald Trump’s inauguration had drawn record attendance in Washington D.C. Spicer’s boast was easily disproven through photographs that showed that the crowd on the mall for Trump’s inauguration was about a third the size of the one at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
So how could Conway—and some Trump supporters at large—cling to a different version of reality? Political opponents have long held different opinions, critics argued, but those have always been based on differing analyses of the same facts. If now the two sides couldn’t even agree on the facts, what hope was there for genuine debate?
Many journalists labeled the phrase “Orwellian” and lamented it as emblematic of a new era in which voters’ political convictions shaped which kinds of evidence they’d accept, rather than the other way around. And since then, amid mounting evidence that the deliberate creation of social media-friendly “fake news” may have shaped the outcome of the 2016 election (an article falsely claiming that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump received close to a million engagements on Facebook, for example), the conviction among many that something is uniquely and newly broken in American politics has only strengthened.
But if that’s true, where exactly did we go wrong? And is there any hope of repairing the damage? What makes “fake news” so irresistible to some—and is anyone truly immune?
These are questions that have been troubling Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor of psychology and neural science who specializes in identifying how group identities and political beliefs shape the mind and brain.
“That’s the cool thing about science,” he says. “When you’re watching the news and freaking out, one thing you can do is go back to your lab, read the work that’s been done, and design your own studies to try to figure out what’s going on and maybe find a cure.”
Last year, Van Bavel and colleagues examined 560,000 tweets on contentious topics such as gun control, climate change, and same-sex marriage and found that each moral-emotional word (such as “greed”) a tweet contained increased its retweets by about 20%—but the sharing was mostly among people with similar viewpoints. And this spring, he and postdoctoral fellow Andrea Pereira co-authored “The Partisan Brain: An Identity-Based Model of Political Belief,” a review of current research suggesting that identification with political parties can actually interfere with the way that the brain processes information.