Coaching & Development Solutions

Five Ways To Avoid The Damage Caused By Fake News



Fake news is a hot story right now. Tim Cook has said it is “killing people’s minds“, Liverpool FC has banned journalists from the Sun newspaper from their grounds due to false stories about the behaviour of Liverpool fans during the Hillsborough stadium disaster, and the Trump administration is fighting a running battle against media outlets with claims of fake news on both sides. Trump accused CNN of spreading fake news with their coverage of the alleged Russian tape, and press secretary Sean Spicer has challenged specific journalists to apologise for incorrect statements. In return, Spicer’s account of record inauguration viewers was disputed by news stations, and Kellyanne Conway’s defence of this as “alternative facts” was challenged by NBC.

Fake news isn’t a new issue. Marco Polo’s influential book “A Description of the World” published in 1298 is now considered by some historians to be a hoax due to muddling different historic events together, and notable omissions including chopsticks and tea drinking, both of which were unknown in Europe at this date. In 1835 an article was serialised in the New York Sun which claimed that a British astronomer had discovered life on the moon. So why is it such a big issue today?

Why We Believe Fake News

We live in a 24/7 world of news articles with a greater percentage of people relying on online information. 62% of American adults use social media, most often Facebook, as their source for news. If the stories are fake then this incessant stream of stories is a problem because we start to believe them due to their repetition. If we hear it so often we believe that it must be right.

Research conducted in Northwestern University has shown that it’s easier to simply store inaccurate statements into memory than to critically evaluate them. We then naturally draw on recently stored information because that’s less effort than older information. When false information is stored with accurate information, as you might see in a sponsored post on a news site, then it’s even more difficult to discern what should be trusted.

How to Avoid the Damage Caused by False Information

Once we believe fake news then it distorts our decision making in a variety of ways. Confirmation bias means we will seek out and believe information which matches the views we already hold, and the false consensus effect is the way we tend to overestimate the relevance and value of our views to believe they apply to everyone. So not only will we doubt that the fake news is fake, we will assume it’s universally true.

Depending on what the fake news is the results can be grave. A paper published in 1998 in the Lancet journal by Andrew Wakefield fraudulently claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. This strengthened the anti-vaccination movement and helped to create a measles outbreak in 2008 of over a thousand cases, the most in thirteen years, and the first death from acute measles since 1992.

Fortunately we can take a few steps to avoid the damage caused by believing fake news:

  1. Inoculate yourself against misinformation in an area by finding a few specific critiques of the news presented (research by Universities of Yale, Cambridge, and George Mason)
  2. Evaluate information immediately instead of just storing it your memory
  3. Avoid reviewing new information when you are tired or stressed since it’s more tempting to take the low effort route of just uncritically remembering it
  4. Use helpful fact-checking sites to gather objective perspectives e.g. Politifact or FactCheck for US politics, Wikipedia for many subjects, Snopes for urban legends
  5. Consider the source of the article and the biases they have

About The Author

Alasdair Graham is the founder of Apex Discovery and a coach who helps leaders and businesses grow. If you found this blog post useful then please share it.

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