Can science combat fake news?

by Mia Rossi

November 17, 2017

Newhouse research professor explores how fake news affects the brain

A photo of Leanne Hirshfield
Leanne Hirshfield

Associate research professor Leanne Hirshfield wants her seven-year-old daughter to live in a world that respects science—and facts. This is part of the reason she is so passionate about using her research of human mental states to combat an enemy of the facts: fake news. Hirshfield has been working to connect her research, which measures levels of trust, distrust, suspicion and emotional state in the brain, to the fight against fake news. The dissemination of fake news has become a hot-button issue for the media industry and has affected how people consume news.

Hirshfield discussed this topic at a research presentation, “Viewing Fake News Through the Lens of Non-invasive Brain Measurement,” Oct. 27 at Newhouse.

As an associate research professor, Hirshfield works at Newhouse’s M.I.N.D. (Media, Interface and Network Design) Lab discovering new information about human mental states. She and other researchers at the M.I.N.D. Lab use non-invasive brain measurements to observe the presence of trust, distrust and suspicion in real-time while research participants view various forms of media. 

“A lot of what I do is funded by the DOD [Department of Defense],” she said. “They are interested in measuring mental states like trust, because trust explains how teams like the Air Force and Navy work together. Teams break down when they don’t have trust.”

After seeing how often fake news stories circulated during the 2016 presidential election, and how those stories contributed to the divisiveness of the election cycle, Hirshfield became interested in taking what she has learned about levels of trust and suspicion and applying that information to how people interpret fake news. “Measurement of these mental states has great implications for the fake news epidemic that is going on right now,” she said.

Hirshfield’s research focuses on four specific areas of the brain: the Temporoparietal Junction, which provides information about what people think of others’ intentions; the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex, which is activated during the regulation of negative emotions; the Frontopolar Region, which is activated during times of increased cognitive load; and the Orbitofrontal Cortex, which is activated during decision-making and in times of uncertainty. “There’s a need to understand how people process and interpret fake news and these measurements can be used to understand that and also stop the problem,” she said.

Attending the presentation was associate professor Makana Chock, who talked about her graduate students’ exploration of the relationship between prejudice and confirmation bias (an unconscious tendency to interpret things in a way that reinforces currently held beliefs). Chock’s class has created virtual reality scenarios that people can “experience” and react to. These scenarios place people in positions where they are confronted with situations that test and evaluate their confirmation bias. This is similar to Hirshfield’s research in evaluating people’s reactions to media sources. The connection between the two research projects began a conversation about how stereotypes can affect the reactions that people have to news stories.

One way in which Hirshfield wants to apply her research is through user interface (UI) design. UI design is the process of planning a website’s layout to decide how users will experience it. “Having a real-time technique for measuring the presence of suspicion has interesting implications for usability testing and UI design, especially in the current age of fake news, cyber-attacks, and other forms of misinformation online,” said Hirshfield and her research partners Phil Bobko and Alex Barelka in their research proposal. Hirshfield specifically mentioned the research helping websites like Facebook, where a lot of fake news articles circled during the 2016 election, with their UI design. “If some of our research could help Facebook change their interface to help people better see what is fake news, could you imagine the huge amount of people that would affect?” she said.

Hirshfield hopes to continue these kinds of discussions with colleagues as she furthers her exploration of this field. “Newhouse is so well positioned as a school of public communications. They are a leader in journalism, free speech and credibility,” she said. “I have these tools, but it’s the Newhouse professors that are going to be able to collaborate with me to really make a difference in the fake news domain.”

Mia Rossi is senior broadcast and digital journalism major at the Newhouse School.

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