The Psychology of Fake News
Over the last few years, as technology and social media have advanced, it has become easier to disseminate fake news and misinformation. Whether it is an article denying climate change, creating political rumours, or spreading misinformation about the ongoing health crisis - we have all come across such pieces at some point or the other.
Researchers Lazer and Baum, along with their colleagues, define fake news as “fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but not in organisational process or intent”. To put it simply, fake news contains information that isn’t true or factual but is presented as if it were.
Studies have found that fake news spreads at a much higher rate than credible information. This is a dangerous finding, because, at best, fake news can spread false hope, and at worst it can flare hatred and incite violence. It is important to understand the extent to which fake news affects us.
Here are some reasons why fake news is harmful.
It leads to mistrust towards authorities and others: Right now, the entire world is facing a health crisis. Despite appeals from government healthcare bodies and international health organisations such as WHO, many people are refusing to follow social distancing norms or to adhere to lockdown guidelines. This is because certain news publications and social media outlets are pumping out false information stating that the threat is not real. A lot of misinformation is also being spread around unscientific treatment options.
It spreads fear and panic: The news that we consume affects how we perceive the world. In the past, self-proclaimed experts have used whataboutery and straw-man arguments to spread fear. A recent example of this is the anti-vax movement in the USA. The anti-vax or anti-vaccination movement undermines the benefits and protection offered by vaccinating children and instead propagates that vaccines cause autism. Despite plenty of research contradicting this idea, many people hold onto it out of fear and panic.
It causes discrimination against communities or individuals: False rumours about a specific person can tarnish their reputation. It can lead to bullying, harassment and violence towards that person. When misinformation targets a particular community, it can lead to widespread discrimination against people who belong to that community or even look similar to members of the community. During the ongoing health crisis, for instance, there has been an increase in racist attacks and discriminatory behaviours towards people who are from China or other south-east Asian countries.
Why do we fall for fake news?
When we consider all the hazards of fake news, it can be easy to question why anybody even believes misinformation. Let’s consider some of the reasons why people fall for it:
We find it hard to pay attention
Our mind is always processing information. We take in information from all our senses, and our brain works hard trying to make sense of it all. On social media, we tend to keep scrolling through a nearly endless feed. It’s impossible to attend to every piece of information - which often leads us to pay attention selectively. Long text posts are often ended with the phrase TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) followed by a brief summary. This reinforces the tendency to just read the gist of the article, and keep in mind the most sensationalised piece of information.
Critical thinking is difficult
Since we have so much information easily available to us, it becomes difficult to critically think about each news article, clip, or post that we see. We have limited mental resources, and human beings are “cognitive misers”. This means that our brain would rather conserve our mental energy for something more important. Instead of critically thinking about each piece of information we come across, we hold on to the belief that if something is posted on a news site, it has to be credible. This makes things more convenient for us.
We are easily influenced by others
Social pressure or peer pressure often affects the way we act, feel, and think. We conform to social norms because we want to belong and we want to avoid social rejection. If a person we follow on social media posts misinformation, we may not want to risk our friendship by calling them out on it. At times, we might also be succumbing to this pressure subconsciously.
We give in to confirmation bias
Confirmation bias refers to favouring information that aligns with our beliefs and disregarding any contradictory information. If a false news story aligns with our belief system, we would be more willing to believe it and even spread it in our social circle. This is because it feels good to confirm something that we think is true. On the other hand, it’s much harder to accept that we might be wrong and to change our beliefs in light of contrary information.
We might even develop false memories
Not only are we more likely to accept information that aligns with our beliefs, we may also develop false memories to support our beliefs. For example, if a news reporter referenced an article which never existed, but aligns with our beliefs, we may actually remember reading the article.
We give into the availability bias
Another reason we may believe fake news has to do with how readily available such information is. Like we said, fake news spreads like wildfire. This means that we might be exposed to several instances of a fake news piece. As a result, this information may be more easily available in our mind, and thus it is easier to recall. This is the reason that during elections every political candidate airs television commercials and puts up signs and hoardings about themselves. This makes it easier for us to remember these figures and believe that they are strong candidates who deserve our vote.
We rely on emotions
Another significant reason we may give in to fake news has to do with emotions. When people rely on emotional reasoning to process information, they are more susceptible to fake news. During the ongoing health crisis, many people display behaviours of panic buying and hoarding - even though government officials announced that there was no scarcity of groceries and necessities. People disregarded factual information, believing fake news about the situation after being overcome by fear and panic.
Keep an eye out for fake news
We’ve already established that fake news is becoming increasingly common - and that most of us are highly susceptible to believing it. The next question therefore is: what are some things that we can do to become more aware of fake news and avoid falling for it?
Investigate the credibility of the source
With the outbreak of the virus, information is becoming a critical commodity that all of us are consuming each day; therefore, every channel, paper, and website is trying to outdo their competition. This may cause them to pedal fake news so they can connect to a wider audience. Ensure you are reading from credible sources only. If a piece of information seems to be fake, run a quick background check on the author and/or publisher.
Avoid reading just the headline
When you receive a piece of news, make sure to read the entire article. Headlines are created to grab attention, and they might not accurately reflect the facts. Consider the premise of the article, and evaluate if what is written is valid, logical and relevant to the premise. For example, if an article about vaccinations has a long description of autism and the difficulties of raising a child with autism, the article is probably not credible.
Consider if the argument presented is logical
A logical article should be objective and based on facts. If a news article seems to have sensationalist headlines, fallacious reasoning, one-sided narratives, gory descriptions, or many personal opinions and prejudices, it probably isn’t based on logic. Check whether the article is presenting an opinion. It’s okay to get different perspectives - but recognise that a perspective is just a perspective and not a fact. Also, make sure you look at different sides of a situation to have a well-rounded understanding of a topic.
Encourage questioning and critical thinking
Find people who think critically, and discuss the information that you come across with them. When you read something, spend time evaluating the information and developing your perspective on it. If you find that a friend has shared fake news, call them out on it gently. Stay curious and ask questions - don’t just accept something you read at face value. If you’re unsure about the validity of something you read, try to find other sources talking about the same information to corroborate the facts.
A lot of fake news being spread currently triggers emotional responses in people. Calling out or opposing fake news can make people feel threatened and may even cause anger and violence. If we are able to foster better norms about listening patiently and challenging opinions and news without getting abusive or insulting, we can work together to overcome differences and arm ourselves with the right kind of information.
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