How Our Minds Tell Fact from “Fake News”

In a world of “alternative facts” and identity hackers, science writer Sharon Begley explores the science of how our minds determine if something is true.


The email seems to offer a solution to a problem you weren’t sure you had but that you’d heard of: Spy Wiper has found a long list of malware, spyware, and other threats on your computer, but if you call the toll-free phone number, a technician—who has kindly asked for remote access to your computer—will walk you through the steps needed to disinfect your machine.

You might think you’re too smart to be swindled by this or other scams. But not everyone is so fortunate. Microsoft estimates that this and similar tech scams (which in fact either upload malware to your computer, charge hundreds of dollars to remove nonexistent or planted bugs, or exploit the access you’ve provided to steal your identity or financial information) net their perpetrators $1.5 billion a year. Facebook “love scams,” in which criminals posing as US service members prey on the credulous and soft-hearted and get people to wire money so they can fly back to the US, netted $362 million in 2018. Some victims—well-educated, productive members of their communities—have lost tens of thousands of dollars to this fraud.

How the mind processes information has long been a focus of cognitive psychology, but now researchers…

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