Caitlin Dewey, a monument in digital media education at the Washington Post, has written her last blog post on what is fake online. She bitterly summarizes her 82 weeks of experience in debunking: “At which point does society become utterly irrational? Is it the point at which we start segmenting off into alternate realities?”

She analyzes, partially basing herself on Walter Quattrociocchi, the underlying causes for us believing online hoaxes so easily: “where a willingness to believe hoaxes once seemed to come from a place of honest ignorance or misunderstanding, that’s frequently no longer the case. … There’s a simple, economic explanation for this shift: If you’re a hoaxer, it’s more profitable. … Essentially … institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.”

I would like to add that this cognitive bias is related to quite a few aspects that we found during our five years of educational project with youngsters and their surroundings (teachers, parents, school directors, therapists, law enforcement agencies) – the final report can be found here. The aspects mainly concern youngsters but, as we found, also quite a few adults.

More importantly, multitasking undermines the emergence of a consistent personal frame of reference by which we can judge our own actions and those of others. The more we multitask the more we end up having a scattered frame by which we judge reality. The result is that we take a lot of bites out of reality without even trying to make sense of it all. Rather we check the facts against hunches of who we are and how reality functions, and not against a consistent cognitive frame. These hunches seem just about right to us as we call them intuition or experience. It is thus not a consistently biased identity that rationally establishes whether we accept information or not, but hunches do that for us.

Unfortunately, these hunches also are biased, but not in a rational way. They are part of a lazy pattern recognition system in our brain that relieves our conscious brain of the burden to make sense of every detail. Since we only have a limited amount of brain energy we are careful not to spend it on things we do not care for. This is a reason why we have a cognitive bias in the first place.

The lazy cognitive bias is self-reinforcing. The information that we casually consume while multitasking slips partially through to our short-term memory, then to our long-term memory and, as a result, to our identity – to the story that we tell as an answer to the question: who are you? This process occurs without ever meeting any critical internal resistance. The scattered frame that emerges because of it, is thus not random: it is reinforced by the stream of biased information that we consume. And that stream is selected by our growing bias to go in one direction and not to another. Processing information that counters our unconscious cognitive bias would mean that we would have to consciously think – a process we try to avoid because of our limited amount of brain energy. On top of that, multitasking takes up so much brain energy since we do not perform many tasks at the same time but only jump very fast from one mental task to another, that we hardly have any brain energy left to consciously process any information at all. We thus just avoid information that forces us to think – which information that runs counter to our hunches is. And thus we go in ever smaller circles.

These individual processes lead to the situation that was described by Dewey: “people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake”. Add to this a high level of institutional distrust, as described by Quattrociocchi, and a digital naivity that is quite common and the underlying reasons for the online victory of gut feeling over critical thinking are in place.

Gut feeling arguments and (short) lines of thinking can therefore not be countered rationally, as Dewey unfortunately found out the hard way. They need a completely different strategy that targets the cognitive bias at its roots:  the lack of brain energy that we have to process information – drained as it is by multitasking and information overload. It is time to start working on this different strategy.