I had an “aha” moment last week reading this month’s Scientific American. The venerable magazine (it began life in 1845) and I go back a long way — I’ve been a subscriber since 1964–and I mostly trust its articles. Lately, its gone woke, with several overly political, ultra-liberal, articles that, IMHO, have no place between its covers. With that caveat, it still does a pretty good job covering “science writ large.”

The article in question is short and to the point, under the heading “Fake-News Sharers,” written by two researchers at Duke. They performed eight studies with nearly five thousand participants to figure out who was passing on all the fake stories that crop up in your and my social media feeds daily (hourly?).

Pizzagate protester (Becker1999 via flickr, Creative Commons license)

Now, we all tend to selectively believe information that jibes with our prior beliefs, and to reject what we don’t already believe. People have long known about “confirmation bias,” sometimes called “the yes-man in our brain.” For instance, around 400 BC, Thucydides wrote, “…it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.” Confirmation bias is probably built right into our genes: rather than seeking the truth, our ancestors (from whom we inherited instinctive behaviors) presumably tried to avoid the most costly errors. So they tended to believe what someone in their tribe told them, not so much because it was true, but because the cost of disbelieving it — loss of friendship, death — was worse than accepting a dubious assertion.

The Duke researchers found that their test subjects, liberals and conservatives alike, selectively believed what they wanted to be true and what they’d be willing to pass on. One group, however, expressed a desire to share false news more than others: the “LCCs” or low-conscientiousness conservatives. Conscientiousness, a term used in personality tests, “captures differences in people’s orderliness, impulse control, conventionality and reliability.”

The research consisted of: first assessing participants’ political leanings and conscientiousness with tests that looked at their values and behaviors; then presenting their subjects with real and fake COVID-themed news stories, asking if they believed them and whether they’d share them. So far, so good — the participants said they believed and would pass on stories according to their prior beliefs. But — here’s the kicker — even when participants were told that an article which they’d indicated they’d be willing to share was false, LCCs still said they’d share it! But why, if they knew it wasn’t true?

My aha was this: according to the researchers, LCCs “expressed a general desire for chaos…the desire to disrupt and destroy the existing political and social institutions.” That is, they pass on stories they know to be fake because it furthers their desire for chaos.

Never mind whether someone actually believes that Jewish Space Lasers are responsible for wildfires, or that a Washington DC pizzeria kept children chained in its basement, or that the election was stolen (despite rulings to the contrary from 60 courts, including the right-leaning Supreme Court). The point isn’t truth or falsity; rather, it’s whatever furthers the goal of doing away with democracy and law and order. The point is to bring chaos to the nation. Or anarchy. Or fascism. Or revolution. From where I sit, it looks like it’s working.

Have a nice day.