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Why Fake News Is an Emerging Threat to the National Security of the United States

Fake News as the Current Propaganda

Because of globalization and increased access to the internet, people across the world are able to consume much greater quantities of information at the touch of their fingers. Individuals are increasingly using social media applications to consume and create online information. Many people engage with social media applications to stay connected with friends and family, but they also unwittingly consume state-sponsored propaganda in the form of online advertisements or targeted messages.

The main focus of this article is fake news aimed to compromise national security. One key example of state-sponsored fake news is the propagation of misinformation by the Russian government. The Russian propaganda model has adapted with technology and uses internet “trolls” to post vast quantities of misinformation daily.[1] Each piece of propaganda is crafted to elicit certain feelings and emotions, with the goal of persuading and influencing personal opinion. While individuals may think they can adequately protect themselves from consuming and believing fake news, the cognitive processes of the brain indicate otherwise.

The Illusory Truth Effect

First discovered in 1977, the illusory truth effect is the cognitive processing error that allows individuals to rate repeated information as true.[2] Individuals rate statements as accurate based upon the frequency with which the statements were presented.[3] Surprisingly, individual cognitive differences do not play a role in the influence of the illusory truth effect.[4] Intelligence (cognitive ability), the need to arrive at a conclusion easily without much cognitive effort (cognitive closure), and the way an individual engages in problem solving and decision making (cognitive style) are not related to the illusory truth effect.[5] Thus, an individual with above average intelligence who expends cognitive effort when evaluating information and has superior problem solving skills will rate repeated false information as true just the same as an individual with below average intelligence that relies on readily available information and has poor problem solving skills.

The illusory truth effect explains why repeated political propaganda can sway public opinion. It had been previously assumed that the cognitive effect only had significant influence over perceived accuracy when the audience did not possess knowledge of the information.[6] However, it was shown in a 2015 study that knowledge of the presented material does not protect against the illusory truth effect.[7] For example, the repeated statement of “A sari is the name of the short pleated skirt worn by Scots” was still rated as accurate even when the participants were able to correctly answer the question of “What is the name of the short pleated skirt worn by Scots?”[8]

The Illusory Truth Effect in Fake News

While there is empirical support that the illusory truth effect can be counteracted, there is a need for research addressing the illusory truth effect in the context of fake news. Of the few studies that have addressed fake news, similar trends to the original illusory truth effect findings arise. Regardless of content type, repeated fake news in the form of social media posts is more likely to be perceived as accurate than fake news that is displayed once.[9] Thus, the illusory truth effect holds for the consumption of fake news on social media applications. Even when informed that the presented material was completely false, participants were still influenced by fake news.[10]

Applying Illusory Truth Effect Mitigation Strategies to Fake News

Mitigating the influence of the illusory truth effect is extremely important because of the rapid rate by which individuals are consuming information daily. Individuals and groups from anywhere in the world are able to directly reach and influence U.S. citizens through social media applications. The effective strategies in combating the illusory truth effect include (1) providing alternative accounts to misinformation, (2) repeating retractions of false information, (3) reinforcing correct facts, (4) displaying forewarnings, (5) presenting brief and simple rebuttals, and (6) facilitating skepticism of sources.[11] However, the implementation of such strategies is increasingly difficult due to the nature of fake news. Fake news is characterized by massive amounts of information disseminated in real-time.[12] Thus, the volume and velocity by which fake news is distributed makes detection and traceability nearly impossible, creating a significant challenge for mitigation strategies.[13] Even if a solution to detecting and tracing misinformation in real-time was discovered, the censoring of online information in a democracy infringes on one’s freedom of speech. Such an effort to stop the spread of state-sponsored misinformation campaigns would require increased public awareness and greater public-private cooperation between the U.S. government and big tech companies.


The implications of the use of social media applications and the Internet for the spread of misinformation are vast. Fake news propagated by a foreign government or a non-state actor could sway public opinion and thus influence the decision-making of U.S. executives and officials. As predicted by RAND Corporation, conflict will transition from its traditional role of warfare to a “virtual societal warfare” where conflict will be waged between and among networks.[14] The ability of the United States to resist such warfare will depend upon how well it adapts and prepares for the war of misinformation. Previous strategies of counter-propaganda by the United States have included those targeting physical infrastructure, content, and cognition.[15] Because of the virtual nature of the emerging threat, the U.S. cannot simply target the physical infrastructure of a group or state. The democratic values of the U.S., such as the freedom of speech, do not allow for the destruction of content or messages on social media. Therefore, the most effective counter-propaganda strategy for the U.S. is to target the cognitive processes of those consuming the misinformation. Because the illusory truth effect drives the perceived validity of fake news, implementing empirically supported strategies to mitigate the illusory truth effect on a national scale possesses great potential as an effective way to combat the emerging threat of fake news.


[1] Paul, Christopher, and Miriam Matthews. “The Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood’ Propaganda Model: Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It.” RAND Corporation, 2016.

[2] Hasher, Lynn, David Goldstein, and Thomas Toppino. “Frequency and the Conference of Referential Validity.” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 16 (1977): 107-112.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Keersmaecker, Jonas De, David Dunning, Gordon Pennycook, David G. Rand, Carmen Sanchez, Christian Unkelbach, and Arne Roets. “Investigating the Robustness of the Illusory Truth Effect Across Individual Differences in Cognitive Ability, Need for Cognitive Closure, and Cognitive Style.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 46, no. 2 (2019): 204-215.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Fazio, Lisa K., B. Keith Payne, Nadia M. Brashier, and Elizabeth J. Marsh. “Knowledge Does Not Protect Against Illusory Truth.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 144, no. 5 (2015): 993-1002.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Pennycook, Gordon, Tyrone D. Cannon, and David G. Rand. “Prior Exposure Increases Perceived Accuracy of Fake News.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 147, no. 12 (2018): 1865-1880.

[10] Jost, Peter J., Johanna Pünder, and Isabell Schulze-Lohoff. “Fake News - Does Perception Matter More Than the Truth?” Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics 85 (2020): 1-10.

[11] Lewandowsky, Stephan, Ullrich K. H. Ecker, Colleen M. Seifert, Norbert Schwarz, and John Cook. “Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 13, no. 3 (2012): 106-131.


[12] Zhang, Xichen and Ali A. Ghorbani. “An Overview of Online Fake News: Characterization, Detection, and Discussion.” Information Processing and Management 57 (2020): 1-26.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Mazarr, Michael J., Ryan Michael Bauer, Abigail Casey, Sarah Anita Heintz, and Luke J. Matthews. “The Emerging Risk of Virtual Societal Warfare.” Rand Corporation, 2019.

[15] Brodeur, Scott D. “Guidelines for a U.S. Counterpropaganda Strategy to Defeat Al-Qaeda Recruiting.” School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, 2011.


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