Ask the Expert: The Psychology of Fake News – CSUSM NewsCenter

Donald Trump didn’t invent fake news, of course. False stories have been circulated as long as the written word has existed. 

Perhaps no person on the planet, however, is more responsible for the term “fake news” achieving worldwide ubiquity, with the meaning often depending on the perspective of the person using it. It can refer to an outright fabrication. It can refer to a story containing elements of misinformation. And, in the more recent twist, it can refer to a largely true media article that the subject simply doesn’t like. 

Fake news increasingly has become a topic ripe for academic research, and one of those scholars is Cal State San Marcos psychology professor Dustin Calvillo, whose interest in memory distortions has evolved into the study of misinformation that’s prevalent on social media.  

Question: How did you become interested in fake news as a subject?  

Dustin Calvillo: My background is in cognitive psychology. My primary research interest is in understanding how memories become distorted. One method that we use to create memory distortions in the lab is to provide participants with misinformation that contradicts details of an event that they just witnessed. We then measure participants’ memory for the event to determine if the misinformation has distorted it. This interest in the effects of misinformation led me to start investigating people’s susceptibility to the real-world misinformation that surged on social media in the months before the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  

Q: Is there an academic definition of fake news?  

DC: There are a few academic definitions of fake news. One characteristic of these definitions is that fake news