Where, in the information age, are we?
When we consider what we understand about the world around us, how can we be sure what we know is true?
We easily consume information from various sources such as social media, messages with friends, and news broadcasts. With just a few taps and scrolls, anyone can have access to vast amounts of information. But along with that over accessibility, within the past few years, we have noticed one detrimental problem threatening the well-being and safety of our society: the rise of falsehoods and “alternative facts” within the media as a result of the bias deeply rooted within various aspects of our society.
In recent years, we have experienced tragedies around the globe caused by ignorance, manipulation, and hatred. In 2016, in Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Dylann Roof walked in with his Glock .45 handgun. He fired 77 times and killed 9 worshippers who were in the church. The public was shocked to hear that Roof was influenced by fake news and racist conspiracies that led him to target the Emanuel African Methodist Church. During the same year, a fake news story about Hillary Clinton being involved in a child sex ring in the basement of a pizzeria caused a man to shoot an assault rifle at a local pizzeria. In Myanmar, 2018, at least 24,000 Rohingya people were killed in the ethnic cleansing which started from the anger and hatred against Rohingya Muslim population, developed by the Islamophobic fake news reports spread through Facebook by the Myanmar military. Now, since the beginning of the still-ongoing Covid-19 pandemic crisis, a significant amount of fake news has manipulated people to believe that Covid-19 is a hoax, and caused the deaths of millions of lives throughout the world.  These series of events share a common instigator: the overwhelming amount of fake news within our society. In this super connected contemporary society, information travels further and faster, increasing access to vast amounts of information with just a few taps and scrolls on phones and other devices. However, what we did not foresee was that falsehoods were flowing into our lives, disguised as truth. Welcome to the era of “post-truth,” where biases and falsehoods replace facts.
Falsehoods and biased information have been part of our lives for a long time. They have been with us in various social settings including discussions at the dinner table and rumors within our social circles. We often neglect the fact that every piece of information delivered by a person has an opinion embedded in them. News broadcasts hold specific political stances. Dinner table discussions show the family’s political view. Rumors within a social circle represent its attitude on a specific topic.
When we think about falsehood around us, we have a tendency of not seeing ourselves as possible victims of manipulation. But it is this mentality that is responsible for making us so susceptible to the falsehoods within the media.
We often accept information from familiar sources without much doubt, thinking: “It is from the news so it must be without bias.”; “All my family agrees with it so it must be true.”; “My friends will never lie to me. They sound logically right.” But the truth is, we might have been tricked into seeing what sounds familiar to us as true. Not knowingly, along with all the stories, we are accepting the bias within it as well. In order to decrease people’s chance of being manipulated by these falsehoods hidden in everyday settings, we need to encourage self-skepticism.
Proofs and studies
As I was wondering about why falsehoods within the media affect us so much, I wanted to find out what people’s information intake habits look like and sent out a survey to 109 young adults throughout the world. The survey focused on finding out how people think about their own beliefs and if their digital practices are different from what they think. It included questions like: “What does the source of information you encounter most often look like?” or “How confident are you about your pre-existing beliefs?”
80% of the respondents chose social media and video streaming services as their most common source of information. Additionally, the vast majority (93%) of the young adult (age 20-29) respondents showed a significant amount of confidence in their pre-existing knowledge being true. Despite the fact that they often receive information from social media and online video platforms, like Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube, they have high confidence and self-assurance on the accuracy of their beliefs. When I first came to this conclusion, it felt odd. I wondered how they can have certainty in their beliefs when the sources they use are notorious for being a brewing ground for falsehoods? This became one of my motivations to find more about the relationship between young adults’ self-proclaimed assurances against the falsehoods they encounter.
Furthermore, as if to debunk their confidence, findings from multiple preceding studies such as Fake News on Facebook and Twitter: Investigating How People (Don’t) Investigate indicates that young adults, from 20 to 29 year-olds, lack skills and interest towards media literacy that the older generations tend to possess. I was particularly inspired by the article, “Factitious: Large Scale Computer Game to Fight Fake News and Improve News Literacy” written by Grace and Hone. Factitious is an experimental method of teaching how to distinguish fake news from actual news. Their essay provided me with the average score data of how well each age group could recognize the fake news. Ages 20 to 29 scored significantly lower than every other age group.
Elements of fake news
Much of the fake news we see within the media and social circles share certain patterns regarding audience engagement. Researchers have found that there are six recurring elements in many cases of fake news. These elements are impersonation, provocative emotional contents, group polarization, conspiracy theory, discrediting opponents, and the practice of trolling. (NATO StratCom 2017; van der Linden, Roozenbeek)
Impersonation is “deception in the form of impersonating online accounts,” (van der Linden, Roozenbeek) which includes a person or an organization copying the appearance of a reliable source or using a very similar web address or name. Fake news sources often copy the appearance of a celebrity, politician, organization and use a very similar name to what its audience might think as a reliable source such as abcnews.co.com (note the extra .co before .com). Because these sources copy the name and looks of the reliable sources, many people fall victim to false and misleading contents by assuming they are reliable.
Fake news often exploits people’s emotions by provoking fear among communities, taking advantage of the tendency to rely more on emotional reactions rather than reasoning when encountering danger. As A Skeptic’s Guide to Health News and Diet Fads states, provocative emotional contents often include risk factors, symptoms for diseases, or data exaggerated to suggest a potential, unfounded threat to the readers, their family, and culture. Sometimes, when the created fear is towards a specific individual or a group of people, the fear turns into a sense of polarization.
Group polarization extends into animosity towards a specific group of people, eventually leading the fake news believers to dehumanize those with opposite viewpoints out of fear. This often appears in fake news articles antagonizing, or vindicating, certain groups based on their political, religious, and sexual orientations. This element of misinformation has been witnessed multiple times in genocides throughout history including Nazi’s anti-Semitic propaganda and the Rohingya-Muslim genocide.
When dehumanizing other groups persists, the antagonizing content starts to create conspiracy theories. Giving false explanations on news events to its believers, the fake news suggests that conspiracies by a certain elite group or political groups are causing certain occurrences. In many cases, this logic is based on unfounded evidence and instills false beliefs in its audience even though more logical explanations are possible and more probable. During the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, multiple conspiracy theories appeared throughout the world, suggesting that social distancing and mask wearing is a plot of world governments, trying to extend their powers to control their citizens. Conspiracy theories often give fantasy to readers, as if telling them a secret which not many people know about by suggesting that the world events are being controlled by a secretive, small group of elites. Through this, fake news sources gather followers and strengthen the readers’ trust in it.
Such content spreads on numerous platforms, with clickbaits and virality used as a method to increase exposure and gather new followers. Just like troll fishing, fake news slowly drags a line with luring viral contents attached, under the ocean of information, trapping its audiences. Social media platforms have become home to millions of bots. While not all bots are being used to spread fake news, a significant amount of them are being used to post fake news and the fake news contents they share reaches out the potential believers.
Fake news sources also make sure their believers stay loyal to them. Destroying trust in the opposing organization is also used to make sure the followers stay loyal while deflecting any accusations. Fake news tries to delegitimize other sources of information in order to legitimize itself. Especially with the recent rise of interest in the issue of fake news, many sources are accusing each other for being a fake news source.
These devices of manipulation are focused on infiltrating into people’s consciousness and turning them into loyal believers of fake news. As they are based on psychological findings of how our mind works, the fake news contents are very hard to avoid. However, what is already hard to avoid gets even harder when we encounter and accept the misleading information.
The psychological cycle
When a bias flows into our consciousness, the negative psychological cycle starts. Repeated exposure to a specific piece of information leads one to believe that the information is true. This process is called the illusory truth effect. In processing certain topics and information, our consciousness evaluates the validity of the statement based on how easy it is to understand. The repeated statement becomes more familiar and easier to understand for us, giving an illusion that it is more truthful.
Once a statement is accepted in our consciousness, it continuously influences our thoughts and feelings even after the information is proven to be wrong. Our “memory system does not handle new discrepant information by simply replacing old information” and by being initially exposed to falsehood, one has a higher chance of developing bias from the misinformation.
When we are influenced by a specific bias, we have a tendency to believe strictly those pieces of information that are in line with our beliefs, while rejecting any information that is not favorable to our viewpoint. As this continues, we select information that supports our views, while ignoring the ones that contradict our view.
This cycle strengthens a self-assurance in rejecting comparisons, and prohibits proper self-evaluation of one’s opinion. This is reinforced by the echo chamber formed in how social media’s personalized algorithms and newsfeeds.
Our (lack of) self-criticality
In the research by Geeng, Yee, and Roesner, Fake News on Facebook and Twitter: Investigating How People (Don’t) Investigate, a documentation of one participant is particularly eye-catching. In this experiment, which observed participants’ behavior and attitudes as they read through the social media news feeds that include fake news articles, this participant did not further investigate the validity of the articles that are very likely to be fake news. During an interview afterwards, when he was asked with a question on why he did not fact-check, he answered: “I tend to associate [fake news] with the [political] right, and I don’t follow anything on the right.” As a matter of fact, not just him, but many participants who did not further investigate the trueness of articles showed the attitude of not worrying about being manipulated, assuming that they can easily recognize a falsehood and that they are not targets of manipulation.
We have a tendency of thinking that falsehood comes only from specific sources or that they are targeted towards those who have differing opinions from ours. But the truth is, it does not work like that. Falsehood and biases can be found anywhere, and rather than a problem of who’s on which side, it is a problem of everyone being vulnerable to the falsehoods within the media because they don’t see themselves as its potential victims.
Enough of the talk, what can we do?
At the core of our information intake habits which often make us vulnerable to falsehoods, is our tendency to overlook the psychological cycle that occurs when falsehood flows into our consciousness. This overlook is caused by misunderstanding the nature of falsehood within the media as easily recognizable or hard to encounter.
One way to break ourselves free of falsehoods within the media is to practice self-reflection. By holding a skeptical attitude and approach to ourselves, we can reduce the chances of adopting falsehoods as truth through searching for evidence before accepting or rejecting a piece of information. Below are a few guidelines for this method:
1. Know that we are not free from believing a biased falsehood.
Accept that we are not as perfect as we think we are. By knowing that our beliefs can be wrong, we can step back and take a more objective look at the beliefs we hold.
2. Understand that our beliefs will always look correct to us because those are the beliefs that we hold onto.
In many cases, many of us don’t see ourselves as biased, thinking our opinion is true because they sound right. But we need to understand that we might have been thinking whatever sounds familiar as true.
3. Know that we are the easiest people to fool.
Physicist Richard Feynman once said this too. Many people trick themselves with self-assurance by trying to defend their beliefs not because they are correct, but because they want to believe it to be true.
Being critical to ourselves, doubting what we know as true might not be the most convenient way to live a life. As a matter of fact, it sounds counterintuitive as well especially in the super-connected contemporary society. But maybe, it is this unpleasantness we need in breaking ourselves free of being manipulated by falsehoods within the media.
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Britt, M. Anne, Jean-François Rouet, Dylan Blaum, and Keith Millis. “A Reasoned Approach to Dealing With Fake News.” Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences 6, no. 1 (2019): 94–101.
“Digital Hydra: Security Implications of False Information Online.” StratCom. Accessed April 22, 2021. https://www.stratcomcoe.org/digital-hydra-security-implications-false-information-online.
Geeng, Christine, Savanna Yee, and Franziska Roesner. “Fake News on Facebook and Twitter: Investigating How People (Don’t) Investigate.” Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2020.
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