2020: What Happens When “Fake News” Goes Unchecked

Photo: Slackens, L.M. The Yellow Press. 1910, Wikimedia Commons.

These days, you would be hard-pressed to meet someone who hasn’t heard of the term “fake news” by now. Not only has it become a colloquial sayism that is synonymous with deceit, but a tongue-in-cheek quip meant to poke fun at those that decry it often in response to information that they don’t want to accept as fact. Formally defined as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting” (Fake news, n.d.), fake news is a phenomenon that has become an unfortunate consequence of the Internet as a vehicle for mass communication. Unfortunately, despite the quantity of information it has provided since its inception, the quality of it has been in decline because of the opportunities that it presents its users to capitalize on a lot of human bias.

Whether for dogmatic reasons, or financial ones, nothing captures an audience’s attention than by appealing to their emotions. With just a sensational title, and perhaps an image, an ad, article, or video can generate more views, and more cash, than had it not. Nearly every article you see on Medium, including this one, may be guilty of this to some extent because it is how Medium writers generate an income: we need to capture your attention so that you’ll read our articles. Sometimes, the temptation can be great to make that title, and subsequent content, as sensational as one can to make a profit and/or achieve a political agenda — even to the point of stretching the truth.

When money is prioritized over the truth, things can get out of hand fairly quickly. For instance, if a media network sensationalizes an event to the point of inventing a narrative out of it (rather than reporting the facts) simply because it attracts more attention to their work, they may sway their audience in one direction of a manufactured political landscape that may not be supported by empirical evidence. Celebrity endorsement may also affirm this landscape to those that belong to their fan base, whether that public figure is truly ignorant of the truth or has a financial motive to be so (or both). As a result, the audience’s reactionary response may fan a flame that may or may not have been there to begin with. The consequences of this produce a circular effect, a phenomenon that may be identified as a collective confirmation bias, because whatever narrative is presented as being the “correct” one, that narrative will continue to perpetuate itself as long as everyone believes that every experience they have will substantiate it. All in all, this is the consequence of fake news, or more broadly, misinformation, and it could very easily provoke societal decline into mass hysteria of “he said, she said” if one isn’t careful to arm oneself against the consumption of falsely skewed information. In the U.S., 2020 has been a great example thus far of demonstrating the consequences of misinformation when it goes not only unchecked, but encouraged by those enticed by both social relevancy and the almighty dollar.

So what can be done to keep dumpster-fires like 2020 from ever recurring? The solution is both difficult, and easy to achieve. Difficult, due to the sheer feat it would be to accomplish for every individual, but easy, because every individual can.

Here’s how you can guard yourself against misinformation:

1. Acknowledge that you’re susceptible to being deceived

It is absolutely no fault of your own that you are. In fact, we all are. Because of the brain’s cognitive mechanisms that serve to make our daily lives easier, gaps exist where misinformation can seep in. Even if you don’t read any further about human bias beyond this paragraph, your ability to fall victim to it is already reduced if you are aware, and accept, that possibility (Leuke & Gibson, 2016). It follows that if you are more aware of your brain’s short-comings, you may be more likely to be careful in reviewing any future information you come across. Simply acknowledging one’s ability to be deceived, however, isn’t enough (Milkman et al. 2009). If you cannot entirely trust your senses, the next best course of action would be to look for other evidence. But what kind?

2. Look for counter evidence first, supporting evidence second

This might sound counter-intuitive, but the desire to look for other supporting evidence may lead one to “find” it even if there is none. As discussed early, this is confirmation bias at work. Instead of accidentally creating situations where you might be setting yourself up for falling victim to this bias, a better idea would be to look for anything that you would consider damning, just like a scientist would. Not only does this help protect you from bias, but it also saves you time in deciphering whether something is true or not.

3. Avoid ads, articles, or videos that make generalized statements or promise “cure-alls”

Nothing is ever black-and-white in this world — otherwise concrete laws that apply to physics could apply to humans too. Life is a spectrum of possibility, and when a statement contradicts this fact by making the assertion that “all x are y”, then this should warrant immediate skepticism — especially when that claim isn’t attached to sound, mathematical evidence. An empirically unfounded, generalized statement is the result of someone else’s bias, so don’t let it become yours.

4. Read every news source from all ends of the political spectrum, not just one

You may have heard it said that “there’s truth, and then there’s perspective”. While some would argue that one is more important than the other, in actuality, they both are, especially when matters pertaining to humans involve other humans. Having a plethora of news sources isn’t necessarily a bad thing when our experiences cannot be divorced from our perspective. When multiple voices report on the same event, it becomes easier to separate truth from perspective according to the common denominator present in all those stories. The more stories you consume, the more likely you’ll be able to spot that common denominator.

5. Get off social media

Unless your livelihood is dependent upon your online presence, there may be no need for you to have one. However if you can’t find it in yourself to break that dependence due to social appearance, it may be best used for only social purposes, such as direct-messaging — not mindlessly scrolling through your feed. Whatever you do, avoid receiving your news from social media at all costs. The creators of the app you use make money off of your biases, so their algorithm will only make it harder for you to resist those biases.

In conclusion, your efforts to guard yourself against misinformation affect those around you. Similar to wearing a mask, you protect those in your sphere of influence from getting infected by misinformation by protecting yourself. But if you teach those you know about how to actively protect themselves too, the risk of contracting misinformation is even further reduced.

ko-fi.com/ejyozamp

Fake news. (n.d.) In Collinsdictionary.com. Retrieved from https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/fake-news

Lueke, A., & Gibson, B. (2016). Brief mindfulness meditation reduces discrimination. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 3(1), 34–44. doi: 10.1037/cns0000081

Milkman K.L., Chugh D., Bazerman M.H. (2009). How can decision making be improved? Perspectives in Psychological Science, 4(4), 379–383. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01142.x

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