Lately we’ve heard the concern about the ease with which disinformation spreads — the problem of fake news. We’ve heard about self-reflecting social media feeds that become echo chambers.

But all this discussion has led me to wonder about something: is our era meaningfully different from previous eras? The first time I was exposed to newspapers was in my grandparents generation. In every major city there were at least two newspapers: one that aligned with your political views, and the others were the rags you would never deign to pick up. Whether about politics, war, or the economy, the newspapers had diverse angles and non-equivalent coverage for their different audiences.
And beyond newspapers, we all watched disinformation spread in real life from flesh-and-blood friends who repeated factually-incorrect stories, purposefully or accidentally.
There is nothing new about living inside an echo chamber. We don’t need social media for that to happen. I remember that after one election, my grandmother said, dumbfounded, “I don’t know a single person who voted for [the winning candidate].” And she was telling the truth: she didn’t have acquaintance with anyone who felt differently than she did. Even though that was over half the nation.

A lot of people are concerned about the Trump presidency, and in many circles social media continues to take heat for his election. But perhaps the question we need to ask is whether there’s something new about the confirmation bias that arises in social media, or whether this results from traditional human behavior. Is fake news an internet issue, or a basic social neuroscience issue?

It’s a cognitive illusion to believe that people in previous generations didn’t have the same biases in their story dissemination and fact gathering. So we need to be careful not to get trapped in the same kind of illusion that gave rise to a Trump victory in the first place: the ‘Make America Great Again’ romanticization of earlier eras.

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