My New York-based mother, who was born in 1913, remembered the 1938 Mercury Theater radio broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds”—or rather she remembered that it tricked many people into believing Martians were invading the area. “People panicked. There were suicides,” she told me, more or less.
Rob Brotherton begs to differ. In his new book, Bad News: Why We Fall for Fake News, released on May 14, he cites the Welles broadcast as an example of a widely repeated story that never really happened. Contemporaneous accounts suggest that hardly anyone was fooled by the broadcast, which included announcements at the beginning, middle, and end stressing it was fictional. But “Few people panicked” isn’t a compelling headline, and newspapers then (and many people now) preferred the more sensational version.
Brotherton, who is from Northern Ireland, completed his BSc at the University of Kent, where his increasing interest in “the weird aspects of psychology—magical thinking, belief in the paranormal” led him to Karen Douglas, with whom he studied conspiracy theories for his final-year research project. Around that time, Chris French paid a visit to give a talk on anomalistic psychology, and the encounter led Brotherton, who already knew he wanted to stay in academia, to move to London and Goldsmith’s University for his master’s and doctoral degrees. There, he worked with French and assumed an editorial role on The Skeptic. Brotherton is now a lecturer at Columbia University’s Barnard College.
Brotherton thinks the difficulty both he and French have faced in gaining academic acceptance for their off-beat interests is in part academic reluctance to bridge disciplines: “We hear a lot about interdisciplinary areas of research and their value, but in practice a lot of psychologists stick to a subdiscipline and people look askance at research that crosses a lot of different areas. Anomalistic psychology does that—cognition, personality, social psychology, development. You need a bit of everything to understand this applied form of belief.” It remains difficult to find a job or get published if you don’t fit neatly into existing disciplinary structures.
Most of the dozens of books about “fake news” are written by journalists or specialists in media studies, sociology, or politics; they focus on laying out the problem of misinformation and recommending solutions closely allied to their area of expertise such as fact-checking (journalists), improving media literacy (journalists and media scholars), or improving education (teachers). As a psychologist, Brotherton sticks out as an exception: he’s less interested in running stories past Snopes or regulating social media and more interested in why we’re drawn to and believe false stories and identifying the kinds of stories that draw our attention. His underlying question is one few others ask: Is this really a problem demanding an urgent solution or is today’s situation a familiar continuation of issues that have always been with us? How much does the internet change things?
“In every interview since the first book, that’s the question that always comes up,” he says. The “first book” is 2016’s Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories—which he views as a specific case of the more general category of misinformation. “People think the Internet must have made things worse, but we don’t really know yet. Within the realm of conspiracy theories there are no studies I know of yet that have really investigated this because it’s hard to do.”
Brotherton is used to dampening excitement. In August 2018, journalists came calling after some QAnon T-shirts and signs showed up at Trump rallies. “What I told journalists was that we don’t know if it’s an important thing. All we know at the moment is that a handful of people are showing up. We don’t necessarily know if they believe it or will act on it, or what proportion of the audience they are. Any context is missing.”
His views on current developments in the dissemination of information are similar. “The fashionable buzzwords—Deepfakes, echo chambers, fake news, etcetera—all have a long history.” The realities of the news business don’t generally accommodate stories involving long historical precursors; they favor stories about “something new, unprecedented, scary, and threatening.”
I suggest that the more important issue in any case is understanding how to limit the damage. But even here he’s not sure: “A theme in the book emerging from my research is that a lot of these problems don’t seem quite as bad as they’re presented in the media.” He cites Deepfakes as an example. The stories say “We can’t trust video”—but his research shows people said this before about Photoshop … and of course photographs themselves, which spiritualist mediums manipulated successfully until we all got better at spotting fakes.
“In the book I tried to avoid giving recommendations about what is newsworthy or what the industry should be doing. It’s not my job,” he says. But, he adds, “Doing publicity for it is tricky because in a way I am saying something not dissimilar to what Trump is saying about fake news and media being suffused with these practices.”
“What I can add is the psychology of what makes us respond and the history, putting it into context.”