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"Fake News," Lies and Propaganda: How to Sort Fact from Fiction

Are you biased? Recognizing your own bias

There is a wealth of research from across the social sciences that seeks to understand your predisposition to believe certain things, and how you process information. Much of this scholarship comes from communication studies, political science, psychology, and sociology. Within psychology, research falls into the general areas of cognitive biases, motivated reasoning, and decision making.

Compiled here is a partial list of phenomena that help to explain personal bias and our susceptibility to fake news. Some introductory sources are provided. The interested researcher is advised to conduct additional searches on these keywords.

  • Biased assimilation
    • Lord, C. G., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R. (1979). Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 37(11), 2098-2109. (U-M Library access)
  • Cognitive dissonance
  • Confirmation bias
    • Casad, B. (2007). Confirmation bias. In R. F. Baumeister & K. D. Vohs (Eds.), Encyclopedia of social psychology (pp. 163-164). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd. doi: 10.4135/9781412956253.n97 (U-M Library access)
  • Continued influence effect
    • Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U. K. H., Seifert, C. M., Schwarz, N., & Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and its correction: Continued influence and successful debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(3), 106–131. (U-M Library access)
  • Dunning-Kruger effect
  • Motivated reasoning
    • Pandelaere, M. (2007). Motivated Reasoning. In R. Baumeister & K. Vohs, Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. (U-M Library access)
  • Naive realism
  • Politically motivated reasoning
    • Source: Kahan, D. M. (2015). The Politically Motivated Reasoning Paradigm, Part 1: What Politically Motivated Reasoning Is and How to Measure It. In Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (U-M Library accessOpen access preprint)
  • Selective exposure
    • Source: Hart, W., Albarracín, D., Eagly, A. H., Brechan, I., Lindberg, M. J., & Merrill, L. (2009). Feeling validated versus being correct: A meta-analysis of selective exposure to information. Psychological Bulletin, 135(4), 555-588. doi:10.1037/a0015701 (U-M Library access; Open access preprint)
  • Selective perception
  • Social reality
    • Lemmon, J. (2009). Social construction of reality. In H. T. Greene & S. L. Gabbidon (Eds.), Encyclopedia of race and crime (pp. 759-759). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd. doi: 10.4135/9781412971928.n308 (U-M Library access)

Is the media biased? Recognizing bias in sources

Journalism is a profession bound by a code of ethics which maintain the ideal of objective reporting.

However, claims of media bias are rampant.

There are multiple areas of scholarly research that seek to investigate the issue of media bias: communication studies, political science, sociology, etc.

Components of Media Bias

Some components of media bias include:

  • Agenda Setting
  • Framing
  • Priming
  • Structural Bias

A good introduction to media bias can be found here: Ciment, J. (2013). Media Bias. In Social Issues in America : An Encyclopedia. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc. (U-M Library access

Media Watchdogs

There are media watchdog groups who aim to police the news media and check bias. Keep in mind that these groups may operate from their own political bias. For example:

Indicators of Scholarship vs. Indicators of Propaganda

A step beyond bias, propaganda actively seeks to influence through the use of deception. Scholarship (and objective news reporting) is created with virtuous ideals for truth. There is a difference between presenting a point of view and deliberately using psychological techniques to shape opinion.

The following indicators are from Prof. Eileen Gambrill (as presented in Bodi, S. (1995). Scholarship or propaganda: How can librarians help undergraduates tell the difference? The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 21(1), 21–25. U-M Library access)

Indicators of Scholarship Indicators of Propaganda
Describes limits of data; Excessive claims of certainty (We have "the way, the view");
Presents accurate descriptions of alternative views; Personal attacks/ridicule;
Presents data that do not favor preferred views as well as data that supports these; Emotional appeals;
Encourages, e.g., debate/discussion/criticism; Distortions of data unfavorable to preferred views;
Settles disputes by use of generally accepted criteria for evaluating data; Suppresses contradictory views;
Looks for counter-examples; Suppresses contradictory facts;
Uses language in agreed-on ways; Appeals to popular prejudices;
Updates information; Relies on suggestions (e.g., negative innuendo);
Admits own ignorance; Devalues thought/critical appraisal;
Attempts to discuss general laws/principles; Transforms words to suit aims;
Finds own field/area of investigation difficult and full of holes; and Magnifies or minimizes problems/suggested remedies; and
Relies on critical thinking skills. Presents information/views out of context.


Are search results biased? Recognizing the power of relevancy ranking

Critical thinking must be applied not only to evaluation of sources but to the search for sources.

Search engines, like Google, use relevancy ranking algorithms to determine which sources you see at the top of your list. These algorithms are proprietary and not available to see; they are also impacted by what they know about you (e.g., location and browsing history). Paid advertisements for content are highly visible at the top of your results list and may also have an effect on your search and browsing behavior.

Social media platforms, like Facebook, have been criticized for creating filter bubbles and presenting content that reinforces your existing point of view.

Some sources that discuss theses issues: