According to Wikipedia, fake news is “false or misleading information presented as news. It often has the aim of damaging the reputation of a person or entity, or making money through advertising revenue.”
How can you spot false information, defend yourself against it, and prevent the spread of fake news?
How to Spot Fake News
“The news and the truth are not the same thing.”Walter Lippmann (American Journalist)
Your Brain on Fake News
Many accept fake news as fact – providing that it matches up with their current beliefs. This is due to confirmation bias, the tendency to look for and accept information that supports and confirms (rather than rejects) existing beliefs. Confirmation bias occurs when people gather or remember information selectively, or when they decipher it in a biased manner.
- COGNITIVE DISSONANCE CAN LEAD TO CONFIRMATION BIAS. ACCORDING TO THE THEORY OF COGNITIVE DISSONANCE, WHEN SITUATIONS INVOLVE CONFLICTING ATTITUDES, BELIEFS, OR BEHAVIORS, PEOPLE EXPERIENCE MENTAL DISCOMFORT. WHEN ONE’S ACTIONS OR THOUGHTS CONTRADICT THEIR BELIEFS, THEY MAY ATTEMPT TO REDUCE THE DISCORD TO ALLEVIATE GUILT, SHAME, AND ANXIETY.
- AN EXAMPLE OF COGNITIVE DISSONANCE IS AN ANIMAL LOVER WHO FEELS GUILTY FOR EATING MEAT. AS A RESULT, THEY EXPERIENCE DISCOMFORT. TO REDUCE SHAME AND RESTORE A SENSE OF BALANCE, THEY MAY REJECT OR AVOID INFORMATION THAT PROMOTES VEGANISM OR CRUELTY-FREE LIVING.
Your brain happily receives and accepts information that aligns with your belief system while ignoring or distorting information that threatens your views. Research indicates that the effect is stronger for deeply ingrained and/or emotionally-charged biases and beliefs. Deep-seated biases/views that are formed early in life can be difficult to ‘unlearn’ because they reside in your unconscious mind.
To compensate for confirmation bias, a person must develop critical thinking skills and have a flexible (not rigid) thinking style. To challenge long-held (sometimes unconscious) prejudices, expose yourself to different viewpoints and perspectives. Also, question what you learned (or were told) in childhood.
Other ways to increase awareness are through assessment, such as the Implicit Association Test from Project Implicit, and training, such as the Implicit Bias Module Series (from the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity).
“By becoming self-aware, you gain ownership of reality; in becoming real, you become the master of both inner and outer life.“Deepak Chopra (Indian-American Author & Alternative Medicine Advocate)
The Misinformation TRAP
A second reason our brains are easily influenced by inaccurate or misleading information (even when we know better) is the result of routine cognitive processes involved in memory and comprehension.
When our brains are flooded with large quantities of information (i.e., the onslaught of news stories from multiple sources), we’re wired to quickly ‘download’ material rather than critically evaluate and analyze. This is the brain’s attempt at preserving its more complex functions. Later, the brain pulls up the readily available misinformation first because it’s easier to retrieve.
Moreover, research indicates that we’re more likely to believe fake news when both accurate and inaccurate information are mixed together in a source.
To avoid the misinformation trap, critically evaluate information immediately, always consider the source, and be aware of the brain’s difficulty with processing information that’s a mix of both fact and fiction.
Emotional Reactions & ‘Gut Feelings’
Emotions play a role in how we receive and process new information. Fear and anger are especially influential. Unfortunately, many people stick with their initial reactions or feelings instead of questioning the validity of a source. Attitudes towards a news source may also influence our automatic reactions.
On the other hand, individuals who rely on concrete evidence are less likely to be swayed by fake news. Researchers found that the acceptance of falsehoods and conspiracy theories was linked to having faith in intuition and/or associating truth with politics and power. Trusting our gut leaves us susceptible to misinformation. Alternately, relying on evidence makes us less likely to believe false news.
“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”John Adams
To avoid being misled, notice any strong reactions you have, consider how you feel about the source, and rely on fact, not feeling.
Political Affiliation & Other Influences
Political affiliation influences how we process information. One reason for this is that strong identification with a political party generates a sense of belonging and loyalty. This leads to valuing party ideals over accuracy. Both liberals and conservatives are more likely to believe false information when it aligns with their political party.
“Blind party loyalty will be our downfall. We must follow the truth wherever it leads.”Dr. DaShanne Stokes (Sociologist and Social Justice Advocate)
What’s more, political affiliation may impact how likely we are to spread false news on social media. According to research, Republicans are less likely than Democrats to have confidence in fact-checkers, and are therefore more likely to share fake news.
Interestingly, political affiliation may also predict how we react to false information about potential threats or hazards. Researchers found that conservatives are more likely than liberals to believe fake warnings and that liberals are more likely to dismiss false information about endangerment or risk.
Regarding gender and age, some research suggests that men are more likely than women to spread misinformation on social media as are individuals over the age of 65.
When it comes to politics and political news, be aware that partisan identity may lead to believing and/or spreading misinformation. Political views may also impact how likely you are to respond to warnings about potential threats and endangerment. Gender and age are additional factors that may contribute to the spread of fake news.
Check Your Source!
When you utilize social media sites for news, you’re less likely to consider the source and more likely to be misled by fake news. Social media sites like Facebook provide users with entertainment (videos, memes, etc.), community, an online marketplace, job postings, news, and more. The intermixing of content is what makes it difficult to discern fiction from fact.
“The information you get from social media is not a substitute for academic discipline at all.”Bill Nye (Science Guy)
To reduce the impact of false information you encounter on social media, avoid using Facebook as your primary news platform, and when you do come across a questionable post, always check the source!
In sum, there are many reasons why we’re susceptible to fake news, but there are also evidence-based strategies to avoid being misled.
STRATEGIES FOR SPOTTING FAKE NEWS
- 1) Use critical thinking
- 2) Remain aware of confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance
- 3) Develop a flexible thinking style
- 4) Increase awareness of your own biases and challenge your beliefs
- 5) Rely on fact, not emotion or intuition
- 6) Consider your political affiliation and other influences (such as gender and age)
- 7) Avoid social media for news
- 8) Always check the source!
See below for links to a list of fake news hits (from Buzzfeed) and lists of websites that promote false information (from CBS, Forbes, and Wikipedia).
Fake News Sites
- 50 of the Biggest Fake News Hits on Facebook in 2018
- Fake News Sites to Watch Out For – CBS News
- Here Are The Real Fake News Sites – Forbes
- List of Fake News Websites – Wikipedia
By Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC, LSATP
- American Psychological Association. (2018, August 10). Why we’re susceptible to fake news, how to defend against it [Press release]. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2018/08/fake-news
- Cell Press. (2018, February 20). How political parties influence our beliefs, and what we can do about it. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/02/180220123127.htm
- Cornell University. (2019, May 8). Source credibility is key to derailing fake news. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190508142454.htm
- McLeod, S. A. (2018, Febuary 05). Cognitive dissonance. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html
- New York University. (2019, January 9). Fake news shared by very few, but those over 65 more likely to pass on such stories. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/01/190109142618.htm
- Noor, I. (2020, June 10). Confirmation bias. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/confirmation-bias.html
- Northwestern University. (2016, November 22). Why we rely on inaccurate information. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/11/161122080756.htm
- NYU Tandon School of Engineering. (2020, April 28). Red-flagging misinformation could slow the spread of fake news on social media. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/04/200428112542.htm
- Ohio State University. (2017, September 18). Reliance on ‘gut feelings’ linked to belief in fake news: Study finds political bias isn’t all that shapes how we perceive truth. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/09/170918142157.htm
- Ohio State University. (2020, March 30). How social media makes it difficult to identify real news: Jumbling of content makes viewers less likely to check sources. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/03/200330093419.htm
- University of California – Los Angeles. (2017, February 2). Political affiliation can predict how people will react to false information about threats: Studies show that conservatives believe untrue warnings more than liberals do. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/02/170202141851.htm
- University of Colorado at Boulder. (2020, March 26). In politics and pandemics, trolls use fear, anger to drive clicks: Fake Facebook ads placed by Russians in 2016 received 9 times more clicks than typical ads. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/03/200326155925.htm
- Wikipedia contributors. (2021, February 18). Fake news. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Fake_news&oldid=1007554509