Why you keep falling for fake news

Why you keep falling for fake news

There is a strange thing that happens anytime we see something published.

Intellectually we know, just because it’s published, doesn’t mean it’s true. It just means it’s published.

Yet, when we see something published, we start to behave like someone who’s never seen a newsreel before.

Jules in the Man in the High Castle.


We’re in a trance.

There’s something about being “published” that makes our common sense go, “Bye, Felicia” and our lizard brain takes over.

That lizard brain loves it some fake news. Sensationalism, Fear Mongering, Bombast…loves it.

This has been the case since for centuries, which is why it’s a little troubling that we’re only now becoming concerned with “fake news.”

Fake news has been a thing since we invented the printing press. And we keep falling for it. Century after century after century.

The good news about recurring patterns is that you can break them. So, I’m going to explain why you keep falling for fake news so you can punch your lizard brain in the face.

There are three reasons. Here we go:

Reason 1: Real news is boring.


If you liked real news, you’d be watching CSPAN right now. But you’re not. Because CSPAN is boring.

You’re already bored with your job and your spouse and the drudgery of the 9-to-5, why would you want to be bored while you read the news?

You don’t.

You want to be entertained.

Is that not why you are here!?


If we don’t entertain you, you won’t click, read, or watch what we produce. And if you don’t click, read, or watch – then you don’t get news (and we don’t get paid – but that’s a topic for a different article).

If we can’t get your attention, you won’t even get fake news, you get no news.

So we have to trick you. Like a dog.

Have you ever seen a dog take a pill?

No, you haven’t because they won’t do it. Dogs are weird. If you want your dog to take its medicine you have to hide it in peanut butter.

Same thing with the news. Specifically with what we call “headlines.” (lovingly referred to as “click bait.”)

If I want to get your attention, I need to bait you with headlines that make your lizard brain go “WHAAAAT?! Tell me more…[Click.]”

Otherwise, you’ll ignore me because you’re busy and you don’t want to be bored.

If I called this article “Intro to media literacy” you’d be like, “meh, Mark as read,” and move on with your day. Which is why I had to bait you with something interesting.

It’s also why I’m writing like I’m talking to you instead of like an academic.

It’s so you pay attention.

(Ok fine, it’s also because I’m terrible at writing like an academic.)

Right now, bombastic sensationalist headlines are the only things you’re paying attention to, so they’re going to give you more of those until it stops working.


Reason 2: You’re being framed.


Let’s say, your mom went to a fundraiser to hear a speaker named Cathy.

When she calls you and recounts the fundraiser, all she tells you about is who was there and what they wore.

You conclude, “What a superficial evening.”

Had you gotten the account from your mom’s friend, Stacey, you’d have heard all about Cathy’s tear-jerking speech on human trafficking.

Both accounts are true.

No one is “lying” to you.

But by highlighting certain things and downplaying others, each person is framing the story differently – causing you to draw completely different conclusions about the evening.

That’s exactly what’s happening with the news.

The fancy academic term for this is “the framing effect.” 

IRL it’s understood that someone is leaving things out or giving you what we colloquially refer to as “their side of the story.”

We expect that of our friends, not our media.

And just like with your friends, f you want the full story, you need to go out and find it.

That’s why I recommend treating your media consumption the way you treat your mom and de facto assume it’s being framed and do not draw any conclusions before you consult the rest of the parties involved.


Reason #3: The landscape changed, you didn’t


There’s lots of fun pseudo-science and neurobabble about dopamine hits and shrinking attention spans and how we’re all getting dumber.

None of it is true.

You’re as dumb as you’ve always been. (#sorrynotsorry?)

You watched all 7 seasons of Homeland. Your attention span is fine.

You are the same. That’s the problem.

The landscape has changed and you’re the same.

Back in the day, there were only four channels you needed to keep up with. You kept up with them and generally got the gist.

Deep down, you suspected there was more to the story (see #2), but there was literally no way (literally) to get said “more to the story.”

So, you moved on with your day.

Today, you can get the “more to the story.” But there is no feasible way to do it and still have a life (or a paycheck).

There’s too much information.

Props to the 4 people who get this joke.


It’s not physically possible to consume it all.

But, that doesn’t stop you from trying.

It doesn’t help that we lure you in with our bombastic click-bait headlines (see #1), so you can’t turn off your TV or your computer or your phone and walk away.

You HAVE TO KNOW why Kim got robbed!?! (#punny) JUST ONE MORE CLICK I SWEAR!

And then POOF.

You’re in the click-bait-rabbit-hole-of-doom, set to resurface in an hour or so, still feeling like you haven’t read/watched/learned/commented enough.


It’s not your fault, but it is your problem.


It’s a little your fault. You keep clicking on crap and choosing entertainment over real news. While you might not be able to resist our clickbait, you can combat it. Just like any addict, the road to recovery it begins with awareness of the problem.

So now you know.

For what you can do to punch your lizard brain in the face, check out 10 Things you can do to stop falling for fake news.


If it’s your first time here, welcome! I’m Margo, winner of many Participation Trophies and writer at TSI. For more on how media, marketing, and advertising are controlling your thoughts, sign up here.

Why your Facebook rants feel so darn good

Why your Facebook rants feel so darn good

We were at dinner.

There were 6 of us. One of the six is Ann.

Ann is the token loose cannon. We all are nice to Ann, but think she’s crazy. She’s a grandmother, very friendly, a little nutty. We’re polite and generally try and ignore her conspiracy theories or neuroticism because, you know, manners.

So, we’re at dinner.

And Ann says that Obamacare is taking all the care away from people who need it.

Everyone continues to be polite.

Then Ann explains that good hardworking Americans are having their America taken away from them.

I’m seated next to Ann and it’s increasingly difficult to ignore her. She goes on about how “illegals” are endangering our country.

So, like any sensible person, I say:

“Ann, I know. I even heard that they’re letting black people vote now!”

(dramatic pause.)

Ann says, “That was a very bitchy thing to say, Margo.”

I say, “That was a very racist thing to say, Ann.”

The rest of the table stares at me and then proceeds to make small talk about the weather.

[end scene]


Being an asshole is not how you make change.

Granted, it was hilarious to me for a solid 4 seconds, but after those seconds I felt like crap.

Regardless of our disagreements on policy or belief or actual facts, I publicly shamed a grown woman, a family friend, and someone who had been nice to me.

My mother raised me better than that.

I’d confused activism and being an asshole. 

For a few minutes, I genuinely believed I’d stood up for something important. The way you feel when you post your social justice rant on Facebook.

On the way home, I wondered why I felt so damn vindicated when I’d accomplished literally nothing.


The temptation of Vanity Metrics

Marketers are exceptionally skilled in convincing clients they’re doing something useful when really they’re doing nothing.

And that’s because they have metrics to prove how many useless things they’re actually doing. They’re called “vanity metrics.”

Vanity metrics are self-affirming activities that you can quantify, but they mean little-to-nothing when it comes to sales. We love vanity metrics because they feel really really good to our egos.

Like Facebook likes or ad impressions.

It always feels good to get lots of Facebook likes.

Just like, it always feels good to bully someone who deserves it.

Being an asshole was great for my vanity metrics.

I got the halo effect of a good story to go back to my echo-chamber with and I could quantify it!

In fact, it made all my numbers go up:

  • Number of people you’ve antagonized who “deserved it.”
  • Number of self-affirming articles you forwarded to your friends.
  • Number of superheated conversations you’ve had with your mom.

Yay #slacktivism

The trouble with vanity metrics is they make you believe you’re doing something useful. But you’re not.

A better way to determine success is to measure conversion rates or sales.

Conversion rates are the percentage of non-buyers you turn into buyers.  

(For you knit-pickers, yes it’s used for other things, like list building, but come on I’m making an important point here!)

In this situation, my conversion rates would be the percentage of people I’ve successfully converted from “disagrees with me” to “agrees with me.”

Currently: zero.

And for someone who understands the mechanics of persuasion, influence, and manipulation, I was doing an exceptionally shitty job.


Can you get to the point, Margo?

No, I have one more marketing lesson. But it’s a good one I swear.

When you want to sell a product to a person who doesn’t want your product, it’s…hard.

And that’s often what marketers are tasked to do. Get people who don’t want my product to buy my product.

Name-calling is ineffectual here.

Exhibit A:

"Stupid Moron why don't you buy napkins?!" Ad

“Stupid Moron why don’t you buy napkins?!” Ad


You can test it (please test it!!), but I’ll put money on the fact that this headline will not work.

If you want to convert someone who doesn’t think they need what you’re selling, you have to work a lot harder. It starts with meeting your audience where they are.

(For my copy nerds, I’m talking about market sophistication and awareness.)

If you want to sell someone a solution to a problem they don’t believe is real, you have to start by convincing them they have a problem in the first place.

Exhibit B.

"Think you don't need napkins?" Pictures of babies always help. Babies and dogs. #protip

“Think you don’t need napkins?” Ad. Pictures of babies always help. Babies and dogs. #protip

Now, that’s an effective ad.

Here’s what that means for my conversation with Ann, aka all the conversations y’all are going to have over Thanksgiving:

If you’re talking to someone who doesn’t fundamentally believe that sexism is real, you cannot start the conversation by calling them sexist. You have to explain to them what sexism is.

Alternately, if you want to explain that Trump is the voice of the people with someone who thinks Trump is a bigot, you have to explain to them what you mean by “voice of the people.”


Ok, now are you done?

Yes. I’ll wrap it up.

I have been exceptionally dismissive of people like Ann and so has the majority of the left.

Ann’s feelings, though I might disagree with them, are real.

By labeling her “racist” and “idiot,” I separated her from me. Which is the opposite of how you get people on your side. You have to bring them closer. (Same thing with ads btw. If you want to nail that headline, you have to be able to get into the head of your market. You have to bring them closer.)

When I separated her from me, I saw her as evil and someone to vilify. I lost my ability to reason with her, talk to her, understand her, and – more importantly – convert her.

Ann is a person.

I’ve spent enough years in psychology to know that anyone angry or racist is actually scared. 

Instead of being an asshole to her, I could have acknowledged that she is scared and tried to understand why. Inquired about where her bombastic conspiracy theories came from. Validated her feelings. Treated her like a human.

We are all trying to increase our conversion rates. We want to convert people from that side to our side.

And we suck at it.

Instead of having productive conversations, we insult each other.

The reason being a bully doesn’t work is that it doesn’t increase your conversion rates.

You try persuading someone of your side while insulting them.

Good luck to you.

If we have any hope of productive discourse in this country, we have to start with seeing the other side as human.

I failed with Ann. But you don’t have to be like me. Be better than me. Be better than bullying.

Measure yourself by your conversion rates.

It’s the only metric that matters.


For more on what you can do to increase your conversation rates, join my email list

What just happened

What just happened

At some point last night, we all had that moment.

That moment you tell your grandkids about, like where you were when Kennedy was shot or when the first tower was hit.

Last night, that moment was, “Oh %^&!, he’s really going to win.”

I was on the couch with my husband glued to our phones because we got rid of cable.

But that’s not the moment I’m going to tell my grandchildren about.

I’m going to tell them about the moment I heard the most frightening words I’d ever heard and then proceeded to do nothing.

It was 2 years ago at a dinner party. I was talking to a friend about her upcoming vacation.

She said that she and her boyfriend weren’t going to visit the killing fields on their trip to Cambodia because “we don’t want to be sad on vacation.”

I knew it then, but I was in disbelief.

Guys, that is what the banality of evil looks like.

It doesn’t look like Trump. It looks like those who cannot be bothered to be made uncomfortable. Those who choose to ignore hate, bigotry, and intolerance for the sake of a “pleasant vacation.” Those who have forgotten noblesse oblige.

When we buffer against feelings that are unpleasant, we forget that they are real.


When my grandfather left Czechoslovakia, his parents told him he was crazy. They were a wealthy family with high social standing. Business owners. Job creators. “Something as crazy as Hitler can’t happen here. These are our friends.”

They all died.

The story I will tell my grandchildren will be when I allowed the banality of evil to exist in front of me and in an effort to be “polite” I said and did nothing.

I will tell my grandchildren that I helped to elect a tyrant. (Not a republican who we do or do not agree with. A tyrant.)

If history has taught us anything, this is the point where we need to step up (actually, it was before, but the best time after that is right now).

Do not wait for the checks and balances to do it for you. For the “activists” to take care of it. For it to be someone else’s problem.

The greatest lesson of the Holocaust was that people who do nothing are as guilty as the perpetrators.

Do not let us be those grandparents who tell their grandchildren of how America used to be. Do not sit politely at dinner parties because you’re afraid of “ruffling feathers.” Do not hold back your freedom of dissent. Do not think that this is anyone’s problem but your own. Do not put your head in the sand and wait for it to go away.

There is no question in my mind that the man we just elected will target people like me. But that’s not the part I’m most afraid of. I’m Jewish. I’m 3rd generation Holocaust survivor. My family has been kicked out of every country you can think of or killed. I will bounce back on my feet; it’s in my blood.

The part I’m afraid of is that we fell asleep at the wheel.


We got comfortable. Complacent. Wealthy. Insulated. We forgot that we have a collective social responsibility to each other.

For the first time in my 30 years on this planet, I feel the kind of fear you read about in books but don’t believe is real. I was afraid to post on Facebook. For the first time in my history on this planet, I was grateful I look Arian even though my family emigrated from the Middle East.

What just happened was that we forgot that this CAN happen.


The government didn’t fail us. Big business isn’t killing us.

We failed us.

But that ends today.

I am a millennial — entitled, idealistic, winner of many participation trophies — and I’m here to ask the rest of us to step up.

Let us rise up against anti-intellectualism. Against hate and bigotry. Against intolerance. Against click-bait and sound-bites. Against fear of discomfort. Against complacency.

Rise up and demand more. For yourself. For your kids. For the future of this country.

We still (from what I can tell) live in a democracy. So help me god until they kick me out and take away my rights, I’m going to uphold those virtues.

Don’t pretend like this is someone else’s mess to fix. We all did this.

Now let’s go clean it up.

The Surprising Upside of Manipulation

The Surprising Upside of Manipulation

If you’re ever bored at a party, tell people you work in marketing.

Almost instantly, you’ll become the devil and the party becomes much more interesting. #protip

The conversation will start with a blanket accusatory declarative, “Marketing is manipulation!” which is always a fun conversation starter. Then, with the help of adult beverages, it will devolve into “That’s unethical and deceptive.

You will not be disappointed.

One night, after a particularly heated debate with my cousin on this topic, I heard myself argue the marketer’s equivalent of “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

 And for the first time I thought, “Hmm maybe I’m wrong?”

When I started in marketing, the ethical boundary for me was very clear: Consumers have a responsibility to self-educate. The onus is on them to make better buying decisions.

And I practiced what I preached.

I knew the rules.

I knew “natural” wasn’t a regulated term, that “organic” meant “at least 95% organic,” and that “no calories” meant “negligible calories.”

I knew these never had gluten. (hopefully you did too?)

I knew these never had gluten. (hopefully you did too?)

And I purchased items in accordance with my value system.

I was in control.

That is, I was in control when it came to food. When it came to clothes, electronics, or anything else in the retail stratosphere…

“Child labor laws? Who cares, this top is adorable and it’s 9 bucks!” It was like manna from the sky.

It’s not like I could claim ignorance, I mean, I knew about child labor. I watched The True Cost. I knew about the issues with cotton. I know the ripple effect of Forever 21. But I couldn’t stop shopping there.

I was a corporate professional. There were tangible consequences to my career if I showed up in the same outfit twice. Nope. Children, keep working. Margo needs affordable floral blouses this season.

I assuaged my own guilt: “I’m making a deliberate choice. In this moment, I choose vanity over morality.”

As if awareness of an immoral decision made it less immoral. (It doesn’t)

Either way, those were my immoral decisions. My wants. My desires.

Or at least, I’d always thought they were my immoral decisions, my wants, and my desires?

There’s a great scene in The Devil Wears Prada, where Meryl Streep’s character turns to Anne Hathaway and says, “It’s sort of comical how you think you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you, by the people in this room.”

Image result for devil wears prada pile of stuff clip

Was my cousin right? Was I being manipulated by my own industry?

I decided to investigate. You’re welcome.


How brands evolved to be helpful

The first article in this series explored how shopping was invented and how “stuff” provided emancipation from restrictive socioeconomic and gender norms.

That was how the whole “we buy things how things make us feel” came to be.

As businesses rose up to meet demands (again, demands which were legitimate), competition increased. Increased competition meant consumers had more options.

With all these increasing options, consumers needed some way to distinguish between them. We refer to that-way-of-distinguishing-between-similar-options as “brands.”

Let me explain.

If you considered all the options in front of you on any given day, your brain wouldn’t make it past brushing your teeth.

Our brains are super powerful, but they also get super tired. We make thousands of decisions a day and it makes our brains go “ahh I’m so tired! I just can’t right now!” which causes us to make dumb or bad decisions. (Technical term: decision fatigue)

[If you’re interested in this topic I recommend The Paradox of Choice or the famous Jam Study ].


In order to spend our limited brainpower on the important things, we use what are called heuristics. Heuristics are mental shortcuts. It’s a fancy way of saying “common sense” or “rules of thumb” or “not using a scientifically sound rational way of thinking because I am le tired.”

Points for whoever gets this reference

You can argue, and I do, that brands are heuristics.

When we associate a company with a feeling or inherent quality beyond its functional utility, it helps us decide, quicker and more efficiently.

We don’t have to expend energy deciding if J.Crew jeans are better quality than Gap jeans. We can decide that we are “more of J.Crew person” because the brand is more aligned with who we are and, presto!, the decision has been made.

That preserves our energies for life’s more important decisions, like how to be polite to your mother-in-law or whether to go on a second date with that guy.


Your brain lies to you all the time.

In addition to being mentally tired from our thousands of decisions, we also aren’t the best at consistently making (good) (or any) decisions.

Context matters a lot (Technical term: framing effect).

For example, your brain thinks almond milk in the fridge section of the grocery store is fresher than the room temperature almond milk in the center aisle, even though they’re exactly the same.

Same with hearing the “crackle and fizz” of a soda can being opened and poured into a glass. Your brain says, “I’m SO thirsty!!” even if it’s not thirsty.

Same thing with wine. Our brain judges wine as better if it’s expensive and from a place we expect good wine to come from.

Same thing with flavors. If you’re told chocolate yogurt is strawberry and you eat said yogurt in the dark, your brain tastes strawberry.

You get my point. Your brain is a big fat liar.

[If you’re interested in geeking out on this topic, check out Brandwashed or Mindless Eating on my Resources Page. These examples came from them.]

When you combine “too many choices” with “lying lazy brain” and “emotional buyer” you get conditions ripe for manipulation.


The surprising upside of manipulation

There are two main definitions of manipulation in the dictionary.

One is benign, “handle or control in a skillful manner.”

The other is the one you’re thinking of, “Control or influence cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously.”

Are marketers cleverly and unfairly influencing your decisions? Unequivocally, yes.

Are they controlling them? Eh. If marketers were that good at their jobs, I’d be making a lot more money right now…

My point is this: Manipulation is not the same thing as deception.

Deception is bad. Deception is claiming, “This makes you skinny!” when it doesn’t.

Manipulation is putting almond milk in the freezer section even though it’s shelf-stable and doesn’t need to be refrigerated.

Not the same.

You manipulate your husband when you convince him he really wants to drive 3 hours to go to your best friend’s birthday in rush-hour traffic.

You deceive him if you’re lying about the real reason for wanting to go to the party. Perhaps…you’re having an affair with an attendee? Or you need to meet your drug dealer?

Deception is lying.

Manipulation is clever. And can even be helpful for outsmarting our lying lazy emotional brain.

If you put a fresh fruit bowl next to the cashier (instead of candy), people will buy more fresh fruit.

If you use a solid lid for the ice cream freezer box (instead of an air-open top), people buy less ice cream.

Is that manipulation? Yes.

Is it misleading? Kinda.

Is it deceptive? No.

Is the outcome overwhelmingly positive? Um yes.

The upside of manipulation is that it can be used to help us make better decisions.

Our wiring is faulty. We aren’t rational beings taking in all the facts and making logical decisions. We’re emotional, our brains over-rely on heuristics, and our senses send us all sorts of flawed information – we are a mess being misled by our own biology.

Manipulation (by way of marketing, branding, or decision architecture) can help us outsmart our faulty wiring.

(Nir Eyal elaborates on this point in his short video on ethical manipulation, citing an awesome startup called Pantry Labs I wish was everywhere.)


Let’s go back to the blouse

Let’s go back to my blouse from the very beginning. Forever21. Child labor. All that fun stuff.

The reason I couldn’t stop myself despite my rational brain knowing child labor is bad is because I was not making a rational decision.

I wasn’t weighing “bad-but-cute child-labor-built blouse” vs. “my moral compass” like I’d originally assumed.

I was weighing “my successful future” vs. “someone else’s successful future.”

(dramatic pause)

Here’s what I mean: my faulty lying lazy emotional brain sees a blouse. For a split second, I feel myself as the power player in the boardroom, the breadwinner of the family, the pride of her parents, changing the world, getting invitations to sexy events, et. cetera…

I couldn't find a picture of a ladyboss for free but I found this one and she's a redhead so...it works.

I couldn’t find a picture of a ladyboss but I found this one and she’s a redhead so…it works.

I wasn’t buying a shirt at Forever21. I was buying a version of myself in the future that I could be proud of.

Forever21 had taken my existing desire and channeled it into a product.


A better question

There is a famous saying in copywriting: “You cannot create desire, you can only channel it.”

Desires are the things you really want deep down in your insides. The things you will never admit out loud because they’re super embarrassing. We all have them. Many of them. They’re things like approval of a parent, attention of a mate, acceptance from peers, and to feel like you matter.

In the case of the Forever21 blouse, I was the one with the desire. Forever21 took my existing desire (to be a power player, etc) and infused it into a shirt.

Brands are guilty of manipulation, but we are also guilty for being unaware of what’s truly motivating us.

Trouble is, most of us are not at all aware of these desires. Which is why they are so incredibly susceptible to exploitation.

Technically, you think you need and want the things you buy (again, last article). But anyone reading this with a pulse has experienced that “ugh really??” moment when you unload bags from the car and reality hits you square in the face and goes, “You’re an idiot. Return that ugly sweater.”

If you knew what influenced your purchase decisions, you wouldn’t have bought the ugly sweater.

Going back to my blouse, we could argue that if I had had more confidence, I wouldn’t feel like I needed that blouse as a proxy for what I want in this world. I could stand in a room full of middle aged white men (it’s always middle aged white men) with an ordinary nondescript blouse and still be extraordinary.

Unfortunately, I am not enlightened. I am human. And so are you. And despite our best efforts, we’re going to have subconscious desires.

The question isn’t “are we being manipulated?” (If it wasn’t clear: yes, we are.) The question is, “How can we regain control?”

One way to regain control is to work on becoming more self-aware.

The more we understand why we’re doing something, the better we can address the actual issue lying underneath (the hidden motivations driving our behavior) and avoid spending too much money on things that provide little real value to our lives.

Image result for themoreyouknow

This feels appropriate


Fixing the system

For as long as we have brands and choices, we will have manipulation.

The truth is not much is going to change unless our system changes.

As long as we have infinite choice – and freedom of choice within that infinite choice – we will have manipulation.

Our system is set up where “manipulation” feels evil because we are spending more than we want and constantly feeling like we don’t have enough.

The solution, as I see it, is not to busy ourselves with the manipulation debate, but rather to encourage better business practices.

Or as our behavioral economist friends say, “change our defaults.”

When we only have GOOD options, then manipulation becomes a moot point.

This local organic salad or that local organic salad? This TOMS shoe that saves lives or that JOE shoe that saves lives?

If we support the companies that are manipulating us into better decisions, then we won’t continue to feel like victims in an evil consumerism conspiracy.

In the meantime, I’m going to go call my cousin and concede defeat.