Truth is an elusive thing.

Who’s to say that a Nigerian prince won’t wire you his entire fortune if you would just help him out by sending him your sensitive information? Who’s to say Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t enjoy having a quiet lunch now and then in Los Lunas, New Mexico? Or that 6-year-old Falcon Heene isn’t floating precariously over Fort Collins, Colorado, in a homemade hot-air balloon fashioned by his father?

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CNN

Well, facts, for one. And yet there’s still a pull to take these patently ridiculous things at face value and believe the unbelievable.

Sometimes, the people who perpetrate these bits of misinformation want our money. Sometimes, they just want our attention. And other times, they want to get inside our minds and try to reaffirm our righteousness or stoke our biggest fears.

It’s all bunk. So why do we keep buying into it?

The Sophistication of Scamming

The history of hoaxes has, in large part, been tied to the history of the mass distribution of information. In these cases, false information.

Ever since the dawn of communication, people have been passing bull by word of mouth in the form of tall tales and urban legends. That method of conveyance is, obviously, still around today, but it has been joined by legions of others, making it possible to quickly broadcast misinformation across the globe.

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Daniel Maclise, “Caxton Showing the First Specimen of His Printing to King Edward IV at the Almonry, Westminster” (1851) via Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to the written word, we get instances such as the demonic Drummer of Tedworth in 17th century England. The tapping poltergeist supposedly unleashed on an unsuspecting homeowner after he chased a vagrant drummer off his land. The poltergeist turned out to be the spurned drummer and his gypsy friends messing with the guy.

With the invention of radio and television transmission, hoaxsters were able to put the heft of audiovisual evidence into their efforts. The infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast in 1938, in which Orson Welles convinced a large portion of the United States that it was under alien attack, is a great example of a hoax that truly shocked and scared.

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jdeeringdavis/Flickr

Then came the internet, with its chain letters, Nigerian princes, and bogus computer virus hoaxes aimed at suckering people into deleting harmless program files from their computers.

“Usually in hoaxing, there’s a general, non-political intent to deceive people out there,” says David Mikkelson, founder and CEO of the fact-checking site Snopes.com. “It can be intended to deceive or just come from people repeating information without making any attempt to verify it, but not necessarily creating it out of whole cloth.”

Mikkelson founded Snopes in 1994 as a repository for information about some of the more pervasive tall tales that existed before worldwide internet saturation. Snopes was where you could go, for example, to figure out whether “Leave it to Beaver” star Jerry Mathers had lost his life in the Vietnam War. He had not. His experience with technology also led Snopes into the realm of computer-assisted hoaxes, which have branched into the mass-produced, mass-promoted brand of falsehood that we know—and are aggravated by—today.

“Unless you had your own website, there wasn’t much of a way to spread anything, just trying to hope something went viral through email forwards,” Mikkelson says. “Now, anybody can throw up a professional-looking website that looks slick and just as well maintained as any big news organization, at minimal cost. The ability to get something in front of a large audience in a short amount of time has greatly changed, as well as the ability to foster the appearance that you are on level playing ground with large, legitimate news organizations.”

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At their core, pranksters are motivated by a sort of “made you look” mentality. Is your refrigerator running? Well, you better go check it. Mikkelson says there is still definitely a niche in the hoax world for those benign jokesters, but there are also other motivations at work. These are the people who want to drive traffic to their websites to increase ad revenue, separate you from your money, or influence the way you think about certain topics.

While we, as a populace, may be more aware of the presence of hoaxes in our daily lives than Welles’ 1938 prey—thanks, in some ways, to sites such as Snopes—it’s still an open question as to whether we can spot them any easier, given the continual ramping up of sophistication in the implements of hoaxing.

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Hugh Han

“In the last couple years, the whole phenomenon has become a subject of rather intense academic study. It seems like every new study we see partly contradicts something that came before,” Mikkelson says. “Should you debunk things to help the audience learn they’re not true or just leave them? By merely repeating the rumor in the course of debunking, can it have the ‘backfire effect’ to more firmly entrench the rumor in people’s minds? We’re still working out what the effects of fact-checking are on people, and what the best messages and practices for addressing all of that are.”

Fake News from Real News Organizations

Ferreting out fake news, the kind deliberately intended to mislead its readership, seems simple enough, right? We’re talking the Macedonian teenager stuff, professionally curated and targeted to drive web traffic and ad revenue to the sites producing these false stories.

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Veles, Macedonia (METOKARA via Wikimedia Commons)

Most people can tell a reputable, fact-checked news source from ones that are throwing headlines against a wall to see what sticks. But what happens when the reputable news sources get things wrong?

Let’s go back to Heene—better known as Balloon Boy—for a moment. When legitimate local and national news organizations started covering the story on Oct. 15, 2009, all they knew was that Richard Heene had called emergency services and told them that his 6-year-old son was currently floating about 7,000 feet above the ground in a hot-air balloon of his own design.

That’s too good of a story not to run with, right? It’s also too good of a story to check when you’re covering it in real time. A little more due diligence might have revealed that the family called a local TV affiliate before it called 911. Or that the parents were fame-hungry and angling for a reality television show.

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Phil Wilking/Reuters (via Daily Beast)

Or that maybe—just maybe—the more likely scenario was the truth, that Falcon was safely on the ground the whole time. When the traditional gatekeepers get caught up in hoax hysteria, it only damages their claims as arbiters of truth down the road.

“The solution to that danger is you have incredibly high standards,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “I hold the definition of journalist as someone who is committed and trained to the standards of the noble calling of journalists. You have to be very, very careful to check your sources.”

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This lack of due diligence can lead to the spread of hoaxes, such as the recent incidence of the steakhouse waiter faking an anti-Muslim message on one of his receipts. Mikkelson says he has seen numerous stories throughout the years about supposed crime trends reported on breathlessly in segments of the media without first checking with the officials who would know about such things.

Mikkelson calls it “some guy said” reporting.

“Someone comes to you with this fantastic or sensational story, you write up what they said, you don’t do a whole lot of background checking to see whether this looks plausible or credible,” Mikkelson says. “Do they bother checking with local police, the FBI, anyone to see whether they’ve even heard of this kind of scheme or seen examples of it? Well, not just yet. That’s kind of mundane and deflating to the story at large.”

With the ubiquity of recording technology and social media accounts, “citizen journalism” has become a frequently used tool in most outlets’ breaking news kits. If you’re a station manager and news is breaking, you’re going to want to get as many eyewitness accounts as you can on your platforms until your crews hit the scene. So you mine the feeds of the regular people on the scene.

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But what’s posted is often at odds with what’s actually happening. Just ask that shark swimming down the highway who seems to keep popping up in the aftermath of major weather events.

“Mainstream media are getting better,” says S. Shyam Sundar, co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State University. “They’re being more cautious or at least saying that there’s something out there but it’s not verified and that they’re doing everything they can to verify it. The tension for them is always the scoop: being the first to get that story. Sometimes getting a scoop might mean not getting it quite so right.”

The truth is what we make it.

Ever since the inception of Snopes, Mikkelson has heard from site readers who read all the relevant facts supporting a debunking and come to the only logical conclusion…at least in their minds.

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Rita Morais

The fact-check is wrong. What they initially believed is correct.

“You generally only hear from one side,” Mikkelson says. “People are much more likely to complain than praise.”

So it would appear that human beings’ gullibility when it comes to hoaxes has an interesting cousin: absolute fidelity to certain beliefs or possibilities, even if they’re shown to be erroneous.

A 2017 study from Royal Holloway, University of London described this phenomenon as “desirability bias.” Researchers separated out “confirmation bias” as clinging to beliefs that we already hold, whereas “desirability bias” is putting faith in information we want to be true. They’re not the same and, as the researchers found, desirability bias has a stronger pull.

Admit it: You really wanted to live in a world in which jackalopes were possible, right?

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Hunter shooting Jackalope (Jeff Parker via Wikimedia Commons)

“When we have media stories or other things in our environment that confirm our biases, we tend to be more likely to believe them, rather than refute them or cause us to question them. A lot of these hoaxes play on that,” Sundar says. “People give too much credibility to their personal friend or social media network. Once they see something that’s interesting, they further disseminate it. In general, that whole online environment conspires to obscure valid journalistic sources and also play up the kind of personal network of sources which are not really credible, but people feel comfortable trusting them and forwarding what they sent.”

Sundar says that while both sides of the political spectrum may decry the relevance and reliability of “mainstream” news outlets, they also both have bastions they largely trust: The Wall Street Journal and Fox News on the right, the New York Times and MSNBC on the left.

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Kayla Velasquez

The danger comes with the blurring of the lines between legitimate and illegitimate sources.

“If you can convince people that the sources that tell you whether something is true or not are, themselves, untrue, then you’ve pulled the entire rug out of the whole system that keeps things checked,” Thompson says.

A Computer with a Nose for Fake News

Sundar and his colleagues are using technology to help mitigate a problem that technology exacerbated.

He’s on a team that, last summer, earned a National Science Foundation grant to research and create machines that can detect fake news. Sundar, with his media background, is coming up with an exhaustive list of the usual hallmarks of fake news stories: shoddy sourcing, provocative language, a disregard for AP Style, strange URL addresses, and many more. His colleagues on the technical side of things will then use those inputs to create an algorithm for the machines to follow so they can sniff out fake news—with some allowance for commentary and satire here and there.

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Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong revealing the source of inspiration for “American Idiot”—while not realalso doesn’t exactly fall under the umbrella of “fake news.” Even if it did make for a pretty convincing item.

Maybe someday, divorced of emotion and bias, computers can tell better than humans what is real and what is not. I think that was the basis for that famed documentary. You know, Terminator.

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