Why we fall for fake news and how can we change that?

Have you ever been swept away by an enticing headline and didn’t bother to probe the news in-depth? You might have shared an eye-catching news story or engaged with a compelling post, only to realize later that what appeared to be truth was, in fact, a skillfully constructed lie.

fight disinformation

If this scenario strikes a chord, you’re not alone. In fact, even the savviest of online users can find it challenging to separate fact from fiction.

Defining disinformation

Disinformation refers to false or misleading information that is spread with the intent to create confusion, undermine trust, or advance a particular agenda.

Disinformation can take many forms, such as fake news articles, manipulated images or videos, misleading social media posts, and more.

It’s often used as a tool for political manipulation, propaganda, defamation, and even financial scams and can shape public opinion, influence elections, incite social unrest, and destroy trust in institutions and the media.

(Misinformation, on the other hand, is the unintentional creation and spreading of false or misleading information.)

What makes people believe in false information?

Psychologist Gordon Robert Pennycook and David G. Rand, a professor of Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have outlined a number of reasons why people believe fake news.

When it comes to politics, they found “people are somewhat better at discerning truth from falsehood when judging politically concordant news compared with politically discordant news,” but that, generally, “political identity and politically motivated reasoning are not the primary factors driving the inability to tell truth from falsehood in online news.”

People might have insufficient knowledge or fail to take in consideration prior knowledge. Familiar (i.e., previously heard or read) “news” is more likely to be believed when repeated again. Also, unsurprisingly, people are more likely to believe information coming from individuals they view as credible, they found. Feedback on social media platforms (e.g., ‘likes’) also increases belief in news content.

“Fake news is often geared toward provoking shock, fear, anger, or (more broadly) moral outrage,” and people experiencing more emotion – whether positive or negative – are more likely to believe false (but not true) news, they added.

(Though, they noted, sharing fake news does not always translate to believing it.)

The rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI) has further complicated matters. AI-generated images, videos, and text have reached such a high level of sophistication that everyday users are finding it progressively more challenging to differentiate between false and authentic content.

Who is more susceptible?

Contrary to popular belief, psychologists at University of Cambridge found that the more time people spend online recreationally, the less likely are they to distinguish real news from fake news.

“This runs counter to prevailing public attitudes regarding online misinformation spread, say researchers – that older, less digitally-savvy ‘boomers’ are more likely to be taken in by fake news,” the researchers said.

They also found that those who turned to social media for news (younger adults), were more likely to fall for fake news.

Researchers have collected this data using a misinformation susceptibility test anyone can use to test themselves.

How to fight disinformation

Unfortunately, there is no universal solution that helps fight disinformation, but there are some actions individuals can take to protect themselves and consequently minimize the spread.

“Individuals can protect themselves from false news and disinformation by following a diversity of people and perspectives,” says Darrell M. West, VP of the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution.

“Relying upon a small number of like-minded news sources limits the range of material available to people and increases the odds they may fall victim to hoaxes or false rumors. This method is not entirely fool-proof, but it increases the odds of hearing well-balanced and diverse viewpoints.”

He also emphasized the importance for readers to be skeptical and to critically evaluate information sources.

“In the rush to encourage clicks, many online outlets resort to misleading or sensationalized headlines. They emphasize the provocative or the attention-grabbing, even if that news hook is deceptive. News consumers have to keep their guard up and understand that not everything they read is accurate and many digital sites specialize in false news. Learning how to judge news sites and protect oneself from inaccurate information is a high priority in the digital age,” he added.

There are also things individuals can do to improve their ability to recognize and fight disinformation. They can:

Don't miss