Celebrity-endorsed cognitive bias

Mike Rowe shared the following image on his Facebook page today:


If you can’t read the script on the ad:

Taste isn’t the only reason I smoke

People are always telling me that smoking causes low birth weight. Talk about a win-win-win! An easy labor, a slim baby, and the full flavor of Winston!

Winston- when you’re smoking for two

It’s a fake ad. And while it’s entirely possible Mike knew the image wasn’t real, there’s nothing in his post to indicate he was aware that it was a doctored image.

So what’s the big deal? It’s fake, but it’s not like it’s a harmful hoax, right?

Don’t get me wrong; I love Mike Rowe. I’ve been a fan for years, and I’ll always pause what I’m doing to read an article or watch an interview of his. He is a superb writer and an eloquent speaker, and while many people view his opinions as conservative-leaning (I’m more liberal-leaning), the way he presents his views in a careful, calculated, and informative manner rarely, if ever, comes off as politically charged. In short, his opinion is always one I will consider and respect – even when it differs from my own.

That’s why I was struck by this post. It seemed uncharacteristic of the meticulous Mike Rowe to share something so easily identifiable as fake. As many of the comments point out, the over-the-top language is suspicious, and the watermark in the lower left corner indicates the “ad” is actually a doctored image from the Photoshopping website Worth1000 (the original site shuttered in 2013, but you can still access their archives on the new parent site, DesignCrowd). Even as many users criticized the fake, a number of supporters clapped back against the critics, claiming the image was actually real, that the links to sites indicating it was a photoshop were wrong (“Snopes is fake!”), or stating that, fake or not, the ad presented an opinion that would have been espoused at the time, so the advice was real even though the image was not.

Why get your knickers in a twist over it?

People make mistakes. It’s a good fake, and believing it’s real doesn’t hurt anyone. Mike’s page is not a peer-reviewed scientific journal. It’s a lighthearted Facebook page full of amusing, one-off posts. In fact, earlier this month he shared a viral video with the caveat, “I have no idea if this is staged. Nor do I care. It’s just fun to watch” – so he clearly made an effort in that case to say “fake or not, this is funny.” I can respect that because we all like to suspend disbelief for a laugh or to make a point. But there wasn’t any sign of that introspection with the cigarette ad, which made me believe he was taken in by the rouse and shared it to his followers – all 2.2 million of them, including me – as being real.

So here’s what we need to ask ourselves:

  • Do people in the public eye have a responsibility to fact-check what they say on social media – even if it’s not a topic on which we expect them to have expertise?
  • Does the perceived “harmfulness” of a hoax affect its significance or the public opinion of the person posting it?
  • How does a celebrity endorsement affect cognitive bias, our willingness to accept information, and our desire to rationalize a hoax once we know it’s false?
  • Is it solely cognitive bias that causes us to believe something that can be proven to be objectively false (“this was a real ad because I’ve seen it/ones like it”), or is there some deeper personal investment in wanting the hoax to be true?

This incident doesn’t make me question Mike’s credibility at all, but it does make me think about how celebrities act as influencers on social media. Mike Rowe is not a Kardashian, a vapid Instagram star, or a flamboyant YouTuber. He’s an objective critical thinker whose opinion I respect and admire, and many people share my opinion. They see him as a purveyor of objective, non-partisan truth, so any misstep is significant. It’s not fair to hold him to a higher standard of credibility in this case – he’s human. Unfortunately, we know that unreasonable scrutiny is the curse of being a public figure.

Like my parents used to say to me when I fell short of their often unreasonable expectations, I’m not mad, Mike. I’m just disappointed.

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