Who Said It’s Fake News?

Karen Mitchell

Karen Mitchell

Karen J. Mitchell
West Chester University of Pennsylvania

“Fake news.”  The term is used to refer to everything from satirical sources like the Onion to objective factual news reports in legitimate sources that people don’t care for and want to delegitimize.  Assessing a news source’s legitimacy and the content’s veracity is important.  How people do this, why they make mistakes, and what can be done to improve our ability to assess the news accurately are questions psychologists can address.  Here I focus on what we know about one aspect of human cognition that has potentially insidious consequences in this domain:  Source monitoring errors.

Source monitoring refers to cognitive mechanisms involved in identifying the source of information we have in mind—Did I read about the tax plan in the Wall Street Journal or National Enquirer? Did I read about it or just infer its details? (Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993).  Johnson (1998) has suggested that we use the same mechanisms to monitor the veracity of others’ reports, referred to as interpersonal reality monitoring; did Brian Williams experience that Iraq war event exactly the way he described it or did he change details (perhaps innocently via normal memory processes, Mejia, 2015). Much is known about the mental processes involved in source monitoring and why it sometimes goes awry.  How might this knowledge be applied to monitoring the news (Johnson, 2007)?

It should be easy to assess sources not intended to report legitimate news. Although the nature of such forums may not always be obvious, an Internet search does usually clarify. People seem sensitive to the credibility of sources when integrating information into their memory (Fenn, Griffin, Uitvlugt, & Ravizza, 2014).  Reasonable people can probably agree that when reports from such sources are taken as actual news (see https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/02/congressman-falls-months-old-onion-story-about-planned-parenthood-abortionplex/332189) it is mostly the fault of the reader who failed to pay attention to the source or appreciate its illegitimacy. Just as we can better monitor our own reality by using more effortful mental processes to check plausibility (Johnson et al., 1993; Mitchell, 2016), we can reduce our source monitoring errors of news by checking the legitimacy of the source.

Likewise, we should be cautious of reports coming from “real news” sources that are focused primarily on advancing an agenda. Reports from such sources may not be entirely fake; there is likely some kernel of truth, but the spin they put on it might call the specific details into question.  Even seemingly balanced sources may sometimes get the facts wrong.  Our source monitoring processes use as input the features of our mental experience (perceptual details, emotional details, meaning, etc.)—that is, the content.  We are sensitive to the nature and amount of such details in making source decisions (Johnson et al., 1993), and too much detail of certain types sometimes makes us suspicious (Johnson, Bush, & Mitchell, 1998).  Hence, a thoughtful consideration of a news story’s content may be enough to inform its veracity.  This requires moving beyond the quick and heuristic mental processing we often do as we consume news to engage slower and more effortful processing that includes things like comparing it with other information we know to check its plausibility.  Do multiple reputable sources concur?  How does the news report differ from a videotape of the speech?  We might also do an external plausibility check using snopes.com or other fact-checking websites.

Let’s consider why people often don’t engage in the kinds of more rigorous mental processing it takes to assess the legitimacy of news. Why are we often happy to accept news at face value?  Source monitoring research points to some possible answers (Johnson, Raye, Mitchell, & Ankudowich, 2011). People make more source monitoring errors under time pressure or distraction (Zaragoza & Lane, 1998) because that limits effortful mental processing.  Today’s constant influx of news coupled with our busy lifestyles sets up situations in which people do not fully monitor the source or content of news reports.  This may also lead to situations where we pass along (fake) news to others without a second thought (mindless “shares” or “retweets”).  “Wishful thinking” may distort our memories so we remember that desirable information (e.g., a favored tax plan) came from a more reputable source than it actually did (Gordon, Franklin, & Beck, 2005).  We also distort our memories in ways that make them conform to stereotypes; for example, we might remember that a speaker identified as a Republican made statements such as, “most college professors are liberal, so students get a distorted view of reality“ when in fact a Democrat said it (Mather, Johnson, & DeLeonardis, 1999; see also, Marsh, Cook, & Hicks, 2006). Thus, many factors might lead to erroneous memory for the content or source of news reports.

My students and I are interested in whether stereotypes about the credibility of news sources can influence people’s memory for where they got a story. We just completed a study in which we expect to find that students are more likely to misattribute a story with a headline like “Olympic diver covers ‘single ladies’” to a normatively less credible source like Buzzfeed than the New York Times because the content seems more stereotypically consistent with Buzzfeed (in fact, we got it from the New York Times).  The reverse should be true for a headline like “Tentative deal is reached to raise taxes on the wealthy” which is stereotypically more consistent with the New York Times than Buzzfeed.  One real world concern is that such stereotype-driven source monitoring errors could lend information legitimacy when an untrue story from an uncredible source (e.g., Buzzfeed) is attributed to a credible source (e.g., New York Times).

This is a sample of what we know about individual and interpersonal source monitoring and how it might be applied to how we monitor the news. We have decades of psychological research on these issues that can and should be brought to bear in understanding how we process news and in developing interventions to combat fake news (Johnson, 2007).


Fenn, K. M., Griffin, N. R., Uitvlugt, M. G., & Ravizza, S. M. (2014). The effect of Twitter exposure on false memory formation. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 21, 1551-1556.

Gordon, R., Franklin, N., & Beck, J. (2005). Wishful thinking and source monitoring. Memory & Cognition, 33, 418–429.

Johnson, M. K. (1998). Individual and cultural reality monitoring. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 560, 179-193.

Johnson, M. K. (2007). Reality monitoring and the media. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 21, 981-993.

Johnson, M. K., Bush, J. G., & Mitchell, K. J. (1998). Interpersonal reality monitoring: Judging the sources of other people’s memories. Social Cognition, 16, 199-224.

Johnson, M. K., Hashtroudi, S., & Lindsay, D. S. (1993). Source monitoring. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 3-28.

Johnson, M. K., Raye, C. L., Mitchell, K. J., & Ankudowich, E. (2011). The cognitive neuroscience of true and false memories. In Belli, R. F. (Ed.), True and false recovered memories: Toward a reconciliation of the debate. Vol. 58: Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (pp. 15-52). New York: Springer.

Marsh, R., Cook, G., & Hicks, J. (2006). Gender and orientation stereotypes bias source-monitoring attributions. Memory, 14, 148-160.

Mather, M., Johnson, M. K., & De Leonardis, D. M. (1999). Stereotype reliance in source monitoring: Age differences and neuropsychological test correlates. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 16, 437-458.

Mitchell, K. J.  (2016).  The cognitive neuroscience of source monitoring.  In J. Dunlosky & U. Tauber (Eds), The Oxford handbook of metamemory (pp. 425-449).  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Zaragoza, M. S., & Lane, S. M. (1998). Processing resources and eyewitness suggestibility. Journal of Legal and Criminological Psychology, 3, 305–320.

(Acknowledgements: Thanks to Marcia K. Johnson. Her published work and our many enthusiastic and enjoyable conversations on these topics served as inspiration for this piece.)


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