The novelist Norman Mailer, who coined the term factoid, defines it as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper.” We define factoid as an assertion of fact that is not backed up by evidence, usually because the fact is false or because evidence in support of the assertion cannot be obtained. Factoids are presented in such a manner that they become widely treated as true. In our workplaces and neighborhoods, they are known as rumors, gossip, and urban legends. In courts of law, factoids are called hearsay and inadmissible evidence. In the mass media, they are called libel, slander, innuendo, and the reporting of currently circulating rumors, gossip and hearsay as news.
As Mark Twain once put it, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shows.” Why are factoids so persuasive? We can suggest three reasons.
First, few attempts are made to verify the truth of a factoid. We often hear rumor and gossip directly from trusted friends whom we are not in a habit of questioning. We also turn to the “news”—whether on television or in the mass media—expecting, quite frankly, “the news” and are often not prepared to debunk each and every presented “fact.” Factoids often just sneak by out persuasion defenses. We rarely think to ask, “Is this factoid really true? Who gains by repeated telling of this factoid?” Even when we seek to verify a factoid, it is often difficult, since many rumors deal with “secret information,” “secret conspiracies,” and “esoteric knowledge” that is hard to critically evaluate and scrutinize.
Second, we accept factoids because they often meet one or more psychological needs. For example, many factoids are entertaining and this capture our attention. More seriously, the very best factoids help us rationalize and justify our most fundamental worries. Accepting as true a damaging factoid about a well-known person can make us feel better about ourselves by showing us that even the great “Mr. So-and-So” has his faults, too. Spreading a factoid may also enhance our self-images by showing others that we are in the “know” about secret information and by helping us address some of our most threatening fears. As a factoid is spread, it is often “modified and elaborated” to better serve our psychological needs.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, factoids function as a form of pre-persuasion; they create social reality. Factoids serve as bits and pieces that are used to construct our picture of the world. As such, factoids direct our attention and suggest how we should interpret the world.
Source: This is an adapted excerpt from the book Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion (chapter: “The Psychology of Factoids”), by Anthony Pratkanis and Ellito Aronson.