Authored by:  Jopie de Beer, Managing Director: JvR Psychometrics

Original post:  atthatpoint.co.za

There has been a renewed interest in fake news since the election of Donald Trump as American President. He famously and publicly labels anybody who criticizes him as fake news distributors. But the spread of fake news is by no means a recent occurrence. Fake news has over many centuries been used by some to influence people to vote, believe, act, or purchase differently. One might even consider how propaganda often veers into the realm of fake news. What makes the impact of fake news so important today is the fact that it is published on social media. Today a lie can go viral. The impact of one trending lie can be catastrophic and to counter an untruth can be close to impossible to do. The owners of social media platforms are continuously confronted with their responsibility to manage fake information.Governments are also seeking an answer in how to balance the educational benefits of social media, freedom of speech, and the destructive consequences of fake news. The often, overlooked question is what is our responsibilities as users of social media in being able to "spot" fake news and not react on it; and ultimately why we believe and act on false news. The aswer can be found in the prevalence of lies in our lives and our emotional response to the information we are given.

We all lie - some just more than others

Lying can include "what we say", "what we do not say", and "how we say" things. Outright lying or even lying through innuendo can provide an excuse for laziness, help boost your ego, get somebody else in trouble, cover up really bad behavior, or it could just have become a habit that provides satisfaction because you get away with it. Although people have been lying since the earliest days, it has never had such potential as is provided by social media platforms today. If we then accept that fake news as a form of lying is prevalent in life and also on social media, why is it so difficult to recognise it and why do such messages at times, go viral?  

The human reaction to fake/false news on social media

It is well known that fake news is particularly prevalent in societies that are unstable, polarized, volatile, and where tensions run high. People are therefore highly susceptible to fake news and lies when their environment is tense, fearful, or angry. Troubled times provide ideal circumstances for devious characters to "plant" false information - most often for their own benefit. In addition to trusting people, it is also because human beings are emotional in nature that fake news is so easily accepted at face value. If the fake news triggers emotions of fear or anger, people often feel that their survival is at stake. In such a case they act immediately and even impulsively rather than check the accuracy of the information. The emotional nature of news is highly contagious and can spread like wildfire. People are even more susceptible to lies in the form of false or fake news if it fits their own experience and pre-existing beliefs. Such beliefs become even more fixed if it corresponds with the beliefs of family and friends, and becomes messages that are often repeated. In this case it becomes very easy to ignore any information that is contrary to what you believe even if it is factually more correct.  

What satisfaction can there be in posting fake news?

We know that people lie, we also know that people are both trusting and particularly vulnerable to emotional information. The false information can as such have a massive impact on people. The question is why people would want to post false information?

  • By escalating traffic to their "site" they can make money;
  • They are so convinced of their own subjective opinions that they post information, even if factually unverified and untrue, to convince others of their view;
  • They see posting false information as a game and regard it as fun to see the impact of their lies and misinformation on others irrespective of its impact;
  • They have criminal intent and wish to manipulate and swindle people, or even to create chaos to serve their own lust for power and greed.

All of the above reasons include doubtful integrity and a focus on personal gain rather than objective truth. These people rely on the trusting nature of people and use methods of emotional influence to serve their own needs.  

How can honest and trusting people become social media resilient?

Even though the owners of social media platforms and governments have to take responsibility for safeguarding the users from inaccurate and misleading information - people also need to take personal responsibility. Consider the following:

  • Be very honest with yourself about your own preconceived ideas and biases and how these existing beliefs make you strong in some ways, but also very vulnerable in other ways.
  • Recognise how false and fake news are attempts to impact you emotionally. The brutality of pictures, shocking facts, tone of voice, very personal attacks on people, and life and death options, could in some cases reflect the truth, but be aware that these same images could be purposefully planted to create an emotional response and impact on your thinking - to somebody else's benefit.
  • Counteract the tendency to be too trusting by asking for facts, detail, sources, alternative views, and verification. Remember something is not necessarily true just because "everybody says so".

Therefore, critical and analytical thinking, problem-solving, and emotional intelligence are but some of the skills regarded as essential for the new world of work following the fourth industrial revolution. Hone these skills when dealing with the very real threat of being influenced by false and fake news.