Psychology of fake news

Updated Feb 01 2019


The writer is the communications and outreach officer at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
The writer is the communications and outreach officer at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

OUR propensity for blaming social media for the ills of the world is boundless, and the emergence of fake news is no exception. While it is true that social media has added to the challenge with respect to bots, newsfeed algorithms, and an augmented reach, the spread of misinformation cannot be blamed entirely on technology. Human motivation and error are at the origin of the intentional and unintentional deception, as well as our inability and indifference towards separating fact from fiction.

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This is further exacerbated by indolent and unethical journalism: inadequate fact-checking and corroboration of sources; perfunctory investigative attempts; and flagrant plagiarism. When media houses fail to do their due diligence, the facts become more elusive making it all the more easy for misinformation to spread. If unchecked, content found online can even bleed into traditional broadcast and print media further perpetuating disinformation.

The truth of the matter is that we, as consumers of news, are all susceptible to believing and sharing false information despite our best intentions. This is due to inherent and often unchecked biases present in all of us.

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The first of these is the confirmation bias which is the tendency to seek out, accept, and remember information that supports our pre-existing opinions. We pay more attention to the content that reinforces our beliefs and tend to ignore and discount the type that offers alternative explanations. This heuristic is magnified when there is an emotionally driven subject as is often the case with sensational fake news stories.

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When media houses fail to do their due diligence, the facts become more elusive.

Controversial and often misleading news spreads rapidly and assails its audience from different sources, making it seem as though it is widely accepted as the truth. This bandwagon effect deludes us into equating repetition with credibility which allows media inaccuracy to proliferate unchallenged. This is particularly potent with the dissemination of information on the messaging application WhatsApp in Pakistan. When a message is forwarded by a personal contact, the underlying implication is that they are personally vouching for that particular content — with the assumption that they have read and verified the information, which is seldom the case.

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If none of this has proven convincing as it does not seem relatable, it might be due to a bias blind spot. This is the proclivity to believe that we are free from bias, and thus cannot be fooled or mislead. This is dangerous because it affects our ability to see how our personal biases interact with the way we process information.

Recognising these biases, and accepting that these vulnerabilities are targeted by fake news creators, is the foundation to combating the rise of disinformation from our side. Once this is accepted, there are five basic measures we should all take to verify the trustworthiness of news stories.

First, investigate the source to determine its credibility: check website URLs for imposter sources; verify the qualifications of the author; and ensure the accreditation of the publication itself. Second, confirm that the information is dated correctly. Old and irrelevant information often circulates under the guise of current news (there can only be so many super moons and meteor showers in a year).

Reading beyond the headline is the third step: examine the content to determine if the story is clickbait or whether it matches up with the title. Claims made in the article should be backed up by experts in the relevant field and other news sources, although this can be problematic in the aforementioned cases of plagiarism. The fourth marker of unreliable or deceptive journalism is awkward formatting, punctuation, and language. If the news source does not look or sound professional, it should cast doubt on the content it displays.

Finally, social commentary in the form of satire can be confused with real news. Although the primary purpose of satire is to entertain, it can unintentionally misinform and be circulated by those caught unawares.

These tips are a good starting point to help in the short term, but they do not address the root of the problem. From a consumer’s perspective, this should ultimately be tackled by introducing media literacy training with an emphasis on critical thinking, and by lobbying for social media platforms to develop reporting and filtering mechanisms to neutralise the threat of misinformation.

In an attempt to rein in the rampant dissemination of disinformation, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting launched a Twitter account in October to verify content circulating on social media. This effort raises some questions about the interpretation, identification, and verification of fake news as well as the biases of those running the account. ‘Fake news’ has become a politically charged phrase, but is actually an umbrella term including varying definitions and layers of misinformation which should not instigate a one-size-fits-all response.

Furthermore, when addressing news of a political nature, there is always a possibility of using such a channel to further the state narrative and silence opposing viewpoints. According to tweets by the account, some cases of fake news have been reported to NR3C — the FIA law enforcement agency dedicated to fighting cybercrime.

The concern here is whether the action taken against people sharing misinformation will be proportional.

While this step from the government signals the introduction of more proactive measures, there is still some trepidation as to how effective and fair a mechanism this will be to dispel disinformation. Recommendations going forward include tweeting resources and tips for news readers on how to recognise misleading content. Additionally, there should be greater transparency into the ministry’s methods of verification of fake news, as well as their response and follow through to ensure that it is justified. Ideally, fact-checking should be conducted by independent organisations to avoid partisan bias and influence. As for now, we should all remember to be vigilant with our scepticism, especially in our own biases and capacity to believe mistruths.

The writer is the communications and outreach officer at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

Published in Dawn, February 1st, 2019