Are you a victim of fake news? Here’s what you can do about it

Are you a victim of fake news? Heres what can you do about it

You’ve been conned. You believed that YouTube video you watched until someone burst your bubble and told you it was fake. Despite this, you still remember the video vividly. The wing ripped from the fuselage of the small plane. The plane death spiralling to the ground. The pilot miraculously pulling it out of the spin, righting it and landing it with one wing. The fact you remember it so clearly even though you know it is fake is important and I’ll tell you why later.

Fake news is a relatively new term. It’s only been used in the last 18 months but the practice has been around since man first started talking. The Romans were masters at it. The ancient Greeks too.

For many of us, fake news is probably better known as propaganda which is essentially biased or misleading information used to promote a political cause or point of view. Fake news is ultimately an old concept with a new name only it’s ever more pervasive thanks to social media.

Overcoming fake news is complex and can backfire badly

Why is fake news so effective and how do you overcome it?

The first is easy to answer the second complex and counterintuitive to address.

At a personal level, think how difficult it is to overcome a misperception about you, a friend or a family member. For example, if a group of people think X is a genius, brilliant at what they do and potentially the next CEO what happens? Our confirmation bias takes over i.e. we look for every sign possible to verify our perception of that person. So strong is this lens or the bias through which we filter or look for information on that person. We will discount information, no matter how factual, which doesn’t fit this view.

Herein lies the power of fake news: Once the misinformation has gained a foothold it is extremely difficult to reverse.

The one-winged plane is still emblazoned in my mind. And it gets worse… common sense would have us believe to overcome false information all we need do is present the audience with a barrage of facts and figures to disprove their belief.

Yet psychologists have found efforts to undermine, correct or debunk fake news may have the opposite effect and further entrench the very views you are trying to change.

Many years ago I wrote a LinkedIn post about the backfire effect. Essentially when it comes to refuting misinformation the more facts or arguments you present the opposite reaction can occur i.e. the people you are trying to convince become even more dogmatic in their original beliefs.

The explanation for this is twofold: The first is the pain of being proven wrong; the second is the current myth or belief they hold is more cognitively attractive than your potentially over-complicated, factually dense counter-argument.

Three ways to counter-act fake news

Masters of fake news understand very well if they manage to land the first narrative punch, it becomes extremely difficult for the counter view to gain a foothold let alone change perceptions.

And be warned, one of the biggest mistakes counter arguments make is repeating the myth. All this achieves is increased familiarity with the myth and reaffirmation of the existing mental model.

According to John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky who wrote The Debunking Handbook, countering fake news requires a combination of three things:

  1. First, create suspicion around the motives of the person, organisation, etc. behind the misinformation. You may even call into question their motives and drag out their history if they’ve done it before.
  2. Second, if you mention the myth make sure you first issue a very blunt warning. What you are about to read is false…only then should you outline the alternative.
  3. Finally, use visuals. The old expression ‘A picture paints a thousand words’ has never been more apt when it comes to countering fake news. Once again, your visual should contain the warning about the myth. Then you should visually depict the key counter facts. Most of us are visual learners and it takes much longer to analyze a written sentence than something visual. In our online world and according to HubSpot Marketing Statistics, pages on social media channels with a visual attract 94% more views.

Given the mobile world we live in, any attempt to counter fake news without a visual is significantly weakened.

Trust, reputation, fake news and the future

Media and public condemnation of fake news will continue to intensify. In June, the German parliament approved a bill to crack down on fake news on social media with fines up to €50million. Singapore intends to introduce similar laws next year. Other countries will follow and there will no doubt be some landmark cases we will talk about for years.

In a world facing massive trust deficits, public revulsion for fake news will grow. Don’t be surprised to see a rise in fake news witch hunts, fines, court cases, fake news whistle-blowers as well as character assassinations of those behind the fake news.

The challenge, as lawmakers, regulators, courts and others explore legal and regulatory solutions, will be to create the right balance between truth-seeking and the freedom of speech.


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