How Evolution Wired Us to Buy the BS of Today’s Fake News & Social Media Hearsay

One glitch of human evolution is that we remain impressionable. Believing gossip helps us cooperate.

Human beings are unique in that we’re one of a kind on earth. Right now anyway. There is concrete fossil and genetic proof that there was once as many different species of humans co-existing on earth as there currently are different species of bears. We homo sapiens simply obliterated the other species of humans, the same way our global sprawl is crowding out every other species on earth.

It started with our brains getting bigger than other animals’ brains. No one’s 100% sure why, but we do know that we gave up a lot of our muscle mass for a bigger brain – the energy required to grow and power bigger brains had to be diverted from somewhere, and when you’re smart, well, brains over brawn, right? We started using these big brains to build tools that helped us hunt, fight, take shelter from the storms and predators.

Another big game-changer in our evolution was how our species accommodated the bigger skulls required for these bigger brains. Our babies’ heads were getting bigger at a faster rate than birth canals were in women. Death by child birth became an issue. Only women who gave birth to a small-headed baby lived. Natural selection did its callous thing, and killed all mothers and babies except the ones with the genes for smaller heads at birth.

This new human trait favoured babies being born pretty dumb and useless for the first year of our lives, while we develop and grow. The parenting and socialization required to keep our babies alive until they can keep themselves alive, is a big part of why we became a social species. A species that trusts what our parents and other adults tell us when we’re young and impressionable.

The glitch is that we remain impressionable. We trust what we’re told.

Some of us trust, without knowing, that Jesus was real and walked on water, or that “John is totally an asshole, man, Jamie told me!”

We’re susceptible to having our behaviour and beliefs shaped by what we’re told, as opposed to what we observe ourselves as concrete truth.

We’re susceptible to having our behaviour and beliefs shaped by what we’re told, as opposed to what we observe ourselves as concrete truth and reality. What we learn and trust doesn’t really need to be true for us to buy it.

Our Complex Language Made Us Able to Cooperate

One more perk (or downfall) of big brains is language: our primary way of influencing each other’s behaviour.

According to various disciplines, it was the richness of our language that allowed us to get smart and evolve as we did, to rulers of the world. Our vocabulary allowed us to store immense amounts of information, and, believe what others tell us about things we’ve never seen.

It started out helpful, “Hey man, don’t go down by the river, there’s hungry hippos down there.” Without language, you’d probably have been eaten by a hippopotamus that day. It would’ve been horrible.

Language allowed for the social cooperation that made our species thrive and over take the world. We cannot cooperate without language. Picture yourself in a small town that speaks only Mandarin – you’d have a harder time finding a plate of food than you would in England or Alaska.

This is why different languages evolved in different parts of the world simultaneously: cultures everywhere found a way to communicate, in order to cooperate and outdo all the other animals.

But language also gave us the ability to discuss, preach, and teach things we haven’t actually seen. Things like laws (“you are not allowed to steal!) or religious beliefs (“misbehave and you’ll burn in hell!”) allow large numbers of people to cooperate, in a way no other species cooperates. At least not in the numbers we cooperate in.

Wolves or chimps have to trust each other to cooperate and do something together. We don’t. Because we’re united by these laws, nationalities, religions, and social etiquettes that we totally fabricated because our language was elaborate enough to come up with them.

Social Constructs Allow Us to Cooperate in Unprecedented Numbers

Whatever you want to call them – social constructs is the common wording – things like laws, countries, and religions allowed unprecedented numbers of a single species to cooperate and co-exist together.

By contrast, a gorilla would totally refuse to follow a “rule” in exchange for a God’s approved entry into heaven … in an “afterlife” we have never seen. The gorilla would need to see God and heaven first. It wouldn’t know even understand what heaven is without seeing it. In that sense, smart as we are, and as beneficial as our big brains have been, we are prone to believe what we’re told.

Enter Fake News: We’re Wired To Believe What We Read

Not too long ago, cell phones were just a rumour, the Internet was a strange novelty, and social media wasn’t even a word. Local media was our exclusive portal to what was happening in our hometown, or in the world.

Enter fake news. Our propensity to buy it is inherently human. Trump believes half the lies he feeds the news cycle, because he heard it from a source he trusts. The other half of the lies he tells, he tells because he knows the mantra, “People will believe whatever they read these days.” It’s not even our fault, we’re wired this way.

20 years ago, we were safer from fake news — there were fewer sources of it and we were less exposed to it. We got our news from legit media outlets. We got the news when we got home from work every day, because no one was being bombarded with information from sun-up to sun-down the way we are now.

Not too long ago, cell phones were just a rumour, the Internet was a strange novelty, and social media wasn’t even a word. Local media was our exclusive portal to what was happening in our hometown, or in the world.

Social media and the Internet have both widened and polluted that porthole. Social media and the internet allow what we hear to come from anyone, and they allow rumours, lies, and 1-sided hearsay to spread more easily than ever before in human history.

Social media has also re-shaped media’s intention with their stories.

Traditionally, news was about giving the public the full picture, and quotes from both sides of the story, so the public could make up their own minds on a matter.

But that’s boring in this “Too Long; Didn’t Read” era of social media. The Washington Post has proven most of us only skim headlines in social media feeds now, and call ourselves informed. And we only share those stories if the headline triggers us by being polarizing, catchy, or contentious.

For reasons too plentiful to list here, news has devolved to 1-sided bombshells meant to go viral and elicit robust comment threads, so Facebook will deem it “relevant” enough to drag it to the top of more people’s feeds. And the best fuel to stoke the social media fire is simplified, 1-sided, short, and contentious articles. News that leaves us angry, or feeling good, as opposed to truly informed. We’re being fed a new kind of news: puzzle pieces of the truth, instead of the full picture.

If modern media was as solid as it used to be — financially and in terms of who “owns them” — we’d better survive this era of Too Much Information. But news is compromised now. Because Google and Facebook get all the ad sales revenue that used to fund papers; because profit-driven mergers are obliterating good old fashioned provincial or community papers; because desperate media outlets are taking corporate money to stay alive.

HBO’s John Oliver recently showed us what all these mergers and buy-outs are doing to modern media. He ran a montage of more than 50 news anchors, at seemingly unrelated news channels, all across the US on the same night. Each one of the anchors signed off, word for word, with the same forced message the sole owner of those 50 outlets told them to read. If every news outlet is saying it … it must be true?

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