The Danger of Fake News – what to keep in mind when filtering information

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The danger of fake news is more present than we think. We live in an era when spreading information is faster than ever. We are attracted to novelty and want to gain as much knowledge as soon as possible. Unfortunately, many times this leads to us neglecting the quality and validity of information. Our shortened attention span and desire for quick answers prevent us from making further research or be reticent when encountering new pieces of information. Or, even if we think we justly filter new information, we can be fooled by our own minds.

Fake news is not new news

One of the most notorious examples of fake news is the pseudo-scientific paper published by The Lancet, one of the most prestigious medical magazines in the world, in 1998. Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist, conducted a study with some of his colleagues. The result was that the MMR vaccine (against measles, mumps and rubella) triggers autism in children. This caused an entire anti-vaccination movement. When the study was published, the causes of autism were completely unknown; what was known, however, was the fact that children were diagnosed with this disease around the age of 2, which meant in the following months after receiving the MMR vaccine. The outcome was that many people believed the story was true, even though the scientific community repeatedly discredited it. Moreover, the story lingered even after those involved admitted having committed a fraud.

The MMR vaccines given to children temporarily dropped 40% in Great Britain, causing the death of tens of thousands of children. This is only an example of the dangers of fake news and the importance of debunking it.

The difficulty of distinguishing fake news

Unfortunately, humans are subordinated to a series of biases and other factors which harden the task of distinguishing true news from fake news. In many cases, they may think they fairly evaluate the information, but are, in fact, being deceived by their reasoning.

An example in this sense is the fact that people are more likely to believe the evidence which confirms or supports their preexisting beliefs. This is called the confirmation bias. In this case, the evaluation of information is not produced objectively. On the contrary, one selectively gathers information which supports their position or attributes more importance to certain pieces of information which are favorable to their belief. At the same time, they may ignore or even avoid information which counters their beliefs. This does not happen, however, deliberately.

Naïve realism also leads to misevaluation of news. The concept refers to people’s tendency to overrate their capacity of being objective. They do not believe their perception of the social world is subjective, considering the others perceive it in the same way. Thus said, naïve realism leads to people’s belief that those who hold contrary positions as biased or uninformed. This makes it more difficult for people to separate facts from opinions.

The illusory truth effect is the tendency to believe a piece of information to be true after multiple encounters with it. Numerous studies showed that people’s beliefs can be modified after being repeatedly exposed to certain facts. A reason for this may be the fact that information retrieved from memory is more familiar, consequently producing the illusion of being true.

The likelihood of believing fake news

What is even worse is that people not only have problems in distinguishing fake from true news, but they also seem to be more prone to believing fake news.

A study from MIT analyzed rumors spread on Twitter by approximatively 3 million people from 2006 to 2017. The veracity of about 126.000 news stories was verified by fact-checking organizations and the results showed that fake news was spread faster and by a larger scale of people. While falsehood diffused to between 1000 and 100.000 people, truth rarely diffused to more than 1000 people.

A reason for this may be the novelty of the news: false news was more novel and people proved to be more likely to spread novel information. The reactions received when reading true and fake news were also different: with fake news, the reactions were more intense, people experiencing surprise or disgust, while in the case of true news people experienced, among others, anticipation or trust.

An analysis from BuzzFeed also shows pessimistic results regarding people’s relation with fake news. The analysis was made in 2016, near the US presidential campaign. The results showed that in the last three months of the campaign fake election news generated more engagement on Facebook than the top stories on major news websites. False election stories posted on hoax sites generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook, while the election stories from major news sites, such as New York Times or Washington Post, only 7,367,000.

What can be done

Before believing or spreading information, people should ask themselves a series of questions:

  1. How credible is the source of the news? If the post is made by an obscure website, it is more likely to be false.
  2. Does it sound too good to be true? If it sounds incredible, it probably is.
  3. Which are the proofs? If a story brings something exceptionally novel, it should be backed up by more pieces of evidence.
  4. What does the author generally write about? Is this story withing their domain expertise? The reliability of the author should be verified.
  5. Is the story backed up by other sources? Is it discredited? You can add “fake news” after the title and see if there are any results.

It may be simpler not to filter the information we encounter. But especially during these times, when anyone can write about anything and when information diffuses so quickly, it is our duty to make deeper research and maintain our curiosity. If we do not do this, we end up propagating what we consider to be “facts” and become a part of this vicious cycle.

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