Just before you started reading this blog, you were probably on some social media platform (and yes, Whatsapp counts). In fact, you may have been guided to this blog via social media, which has become the go-to source for information and news in current times. This is truer if you’re younger, with old news media being perceived as boring and perhaps too objective; younger audiences are drawn to opinionated stories that may not necessarily be based in fact. This is a worrying trend, but even more so during times of crisis, such as the ongoing COVD-19 pandemic.
The very essence of information is continuously evolving today. In a post-truth society, there is rapid dissemination of all kinds of communication, with readers like you and me being caught in the cross-hairs trying to decipher what’s true and what’s not. However, there are some who wouldn’t think twice before clicking on forward or share on their social media accounts, almost as an instinctive reaction to receiving the message. Others may skim through or read the information thoroughly before deciding it’s worth sending on numerous group chats, because, hey, what’s the worst that could happen? And for argument’s sake, there may be a last category who go through the trouble of verifying the information online before carefully deciding whether the news is fake or can be shared.
It would be fantastic if everyone were that diligent, but the truth is few of us are. At times like the current pandemic, it would benefit if we were responsive to incoming information, not merely reactive. A reaction is quick and based on your gut; a response is slower and takes more time to formulate. Intuitively, fake news stories prey on the former, eliciting knee-jerk reactions often accompanied by some emotion (like anger, pride, horror). They also tend to align with what we already believe, creating an echo chamber wherein a subjective opinion gets reinforced through external communication. These are the basic ingredients for the fake news forwarding recipe.
Alternatively, if we choose to respond, we can learn to catch ourselves making these systematic errors in thought. Research has shown how we can achieve cognitive immunity to misinformation by, counterintuitively, learning how to engage in it ourselves. The study created a “fake news game” where participants learned six techniques used to produce misinformation: polarisation, invoking emotions, spreading conspiracy theories, trolling people online, deflecting blame, and impersonating fake accounts. By helping people understand what went into the generation of such news, they were familiarised with how to spot such news in the future.
These are tense times and emotions are running high. Responsible communication is crucial, now more than ever, given that social media is serving multiple roles in our physically distant lives. We will continue to use these platforms to seek information and news and we may not be able to control everything we come across. However, we can control how to respond (not react) to such information, taking the time to process and verify it.
Europol (2020). https://www.europol.europa.eu/covid-19/covid-19-fake-news
Marchi, R. (2012). With Facebook, blogs, and fake news, teens reject journalistic “objectivity.” Journal of Communication Inquiry, 36(3), 246–262. doi:10.1177/0196859912458700
Roozenbeek, J., van der Linden, S. (2019). Fake news game confers psychological resistance against online misinformation. Palgrave Communications, 5(65). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-019-0279-9
Suciu, P. (April 8, 2020). During COVID-19 pandemic it isn’t just fake news but seriously bad misinformation that is spreading on social media. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/petersuciu/2020/04/08/during-covid-19-pandemic-it-isnt-just-fake-news-but-seriously-bad-misinformation-that-is-spreading-on-social-media/#7c1f43057e55