by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University
The study of “fake news” and other rumors spread via social media are gaining steam. Recent work by political scientists fundamentally challenges the conventional wisdom about the fake news phenomenon and the motivations of those who spread it. The incorporation of political psychology shifts the focus from fact-checking and rumor control, to exploring the deeper motivations of those who spread toxic rumors online.
The standard response to fake news is to combat it with accurate information and fact-checking. For example, the website snopes.com is a frequent go-to for social media users seeking to correct mistaken information they see circulating. Yet most of us who have attempted to correct rumors in this way know what it feels like to crash headlong into the absolute resistance of those spreading the falsehoods, who refuse to acknowledge that they are incorrect or to retract the false information. Frequently, they lash out instead with attacks against those disseminating the accurate information, including the mainstream news media, professors and other researchers, prominent politicians from one or more political parties that they do not support, and even the snopes.com website itself. Why is this?
A recent article by Michael Bang Petersen, Matthias Osmundsen, and Kevin Arcenaux suggests a remarkable, alternative explanation. Put briefly, Peterson et. al. develop a concept they call the Need for Chaos, which they test with six different surveys in which respondents answer questions such as “I get a kick when natural disasters strike foreign countries,” “I think society should be burned to the ground,” and “I need chaos around me—it is boring when nothing is going on.” Some of their questions were inspired by movies, including The Dark Knight and Fight Club. Their independent variables measure a variety of personality traits including competitiveness, the need for status, feeling displaced, partisanship, and loneliness. All six of their studies confirmed their hypothesis that a significant number of Americans surveyed expressed a need for chaos. Remarkably, they even found that those motivated to share fake news online were less likely to believe that it was true than were the others in the study.
This is a big deal. Peterson et. al.’s research debunks the idea that solving the fake news problem is just a matter of fact-checking, or education in the proper application of the scientific method. Rather, their research proposes that we need to look at underlying motivation, not misinformation, as the driver behind online informational discord. Put simply, those with a need for chaos often know that the “news” they share is incorrect. They do not care. Their goal is to undermine the existing social order, not to disseminate accurate information.
Why the need for chaos? Petersen et. al. get a remarkable head start on the answer with their findings that the individuals most likely to have this need feature a combination of traits including a need for status, competitiveness, a feeling of social dislocation, and loneliness. In their final study they even created social isolation within the study itself, by randomly assigning two groups to play a game called “Cyberball.” One group was excluded when they tried to participate in the game, the other was included. Sure enough, this experiment produced more people expressing the need for chaos in the first group than the second, and the results were statistically significant.
This tentative research may be just a beginning. I read about Peterson et. al.’s research earlier this summer and was reminded to find and read their whole study while reading and teaching Sebastian Junger’s recent book Tribe. A journalist who covered the war in Afghanistan, Junger was inspired to write the book when he discovered that he was experiencing more trauma upon returning home to the U.S. than he did in the war zone. He then produced this secondary source book of research, which indicated that this was common among combat veterans. Not only that, but he also discovered that suicide is just as common in non-combat veterans as it is in combat veterans. Delving deeper, Junger discovered that depression and suicide are far more common in wealthy, developed countries than they are in poorer ones, and these horrors are almost completely non-existent in war zones and following natural disasters. Briefly, his conclusion is that when people are forced to band together to survive, they experience the human contact and sense of being part of something purposeful that is so often missing in wealthy societies during peacetime.
Junger’s now findings bring to mind another book by a journalist, Gregg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox: Why Life Gets Better While We Feel Worse, published in 2004. While Easterbrook documented the phenomenon, Junger goes deeper, finding that the prosperity of Western society is at the root of our unhappiness. Humans, Junger argues, have a deep need for social connection and physical touch. Furthermore, we feel most alive when we are in catastrophic situations, such as rescuing someone in an emergency or banding together for survival. Today’s first-world wealth renders these ideas obsolete. We have enough money to live in individual living spaces, separated into nuclear families or even individuals living alone. Separate rooms for children mean far less physical touch from parents, which in turn explains first-world phenomena ranging from stuffed animals to our boundless (and expensive) obsession with pampering our pets. Disasters are handled by professional first responders, who are only a 911 call away. There is no longer a need to get personally involved in helping a stranger.
This contrast between the wealthier and poorer countries begs another insight—the fact that the 2019 Gallup Global Emotions Report ranks Paraguay as the happiest country on Earth. I have visited Paraguay thanks to a U.S. State Department program called the Partners of the Americas. The country is an economic and political basket case– a landlocked country that twice lost many of its young males in disastrous wars against its neighbors, one of which also cost it about half of its land. Paraguay now ranks 92nd of 196 countries for GDP. The political system is a mess characterized by frequent coups. Yet when visiting Paraguay, I couldn’t help but notice a certain freedom, spontaneity, and zest for life among the people I met that is often lacking here in the U.S.
The combination of Petersen et. al.’s research with Junger’s leads to an important implication—the preference for chaos may be rational. Junger clearly documents that people in crisis situations and war zones are much less likely to feel lonely, depressed, or suicidal, and more likely to band together for support and survival. This in turn gives a feeling both of being part of a group, and of being part of something more important than oneself, both of which are frequently shown to be essential to a person’s sense of happiness and well-being. Such conditions also increase human interactions and physical touch. It is entirely logical to believe that those feeling lonely or socially displaced would be particularly prone to craving this sort of chaos over a social order that isolates them, offering little joy, interaction, touch, fulfillment, or sense of being part of something that really matters.
This mash-up of two very different studies forces us to face the idea that the preference for chaos not only exists, not only drives much of the spread of “fake news” online, but also that it is a rational, defensible choice made by people feeling socially isolated. These people may believe that they would be happier, more needed, and more fulfilled in times of chaos then under the existing political, social, and economic order. What’s more—and what’s alarming—is that they just may be correct.
Michael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University. He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett. It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019. He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics. He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018. Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter.