Why are we susceptible to Fake News?

fake news

The answer to the question in the title regarding fake news is perhaps generally well understood, humans are awash with cognitive biases. We are like this because we have been naturally selected to be like this. Specific things gave our ancestors distinct survival advantages.

For example, our ability to detect external agency enabled our ancestors to conclude that the sound of rustling was probably a hostile prey, hence upon hearing it they would flee and survive. However, we also falsely attribute external agency to many things, and so we detect gods, ghosts, and conspiracies where no external agency is actually doing anything, it is simply random chaos, yet we become convinced that the puppet masters are quite real.

It’s a tad more complicated these days because a disruptive force, the internet, has acted as an amplifier. We now live in a world where the sources of information that were once deemed reliable no longer are.

We live in a fact-challenged world

The historically reliable sources of information are failing us. We would often depend upon reputable media sources, but that has changed.

Because of the rise of social media, local newspapers are no longer financially viable. Many national newspapers now survive via a constant stream of utterly rancid clickbait, or have instead become outlets for propaganda.

Let’s look at one highly emotive topic – Brexit.

Vote leave turns out to have been completely and utterly corrupt and broke the law. If you voted leave then it is highly probably that you did so for very good reasons. Unfortunately, everything that was promised turns out to have been a lie. Well OK, that’s normal political discourse, what makes it special is that the Vote Leave campaign went a lot further, indulged in micro targeting and broke electoral law in the UK. While many media outlets right around the planet have covered the details, the BBC has been strangely silent on much of this. A bias based upon past experience is too trust the BBC, but parts of it have fallen prey to propaganda. You might doubt this, so let me give you a couple of very specific well-documented examples …

  • The number of times that Nigel Farage has appeared on the BBC Question Time program is record breaking. In fact, only anti-EU MEPs have been invited to be guests. The number of pro-EU MEPs that have been selected is exactly zero.
  • More recently, for the launch of his new Brexit party, Farage was granted a platform by the BBC to promote his rhetoric without being challenged, and without being asked just once what his actual BREXIT plan was.

Want to understand what is is play and what Brexit is really all about?

Then read the full thread that the following twitter tweet starts, and be aware that none of it is being covered by most of the media outlets in the UK, yet it is all wholly verifiable …

Let’s now hit pause, step back and ponder over things a bit. I very clearly have a specific position, but is it correct, or is it simply propaganda or bias.

How do you work that out?

Bias – What can we do?

Julian Matthews is a research officer at the Cognitive Neurology Lab of Monash University who studies the relationship between metacognition, consciousness, and related cognitive processes, has some good insights and suggestions.

Within an article hosted on Nieman Lab he lays out the details of how memory plays a role in the mechanism that fake news uses to get into our heads ….

We might like to think of our memory as an archivist that carefully preserves events, but sometimes it’s more like a storyteller. Memories are shaped by our beliefs and can function to maintain a consistent narrative rather than an accurate record.

and he then articulates some tips on what we can do as individuals to resist this …

The way our memory works means it might be impossible to resist fake news completely. But one approach is to start thinking like a scientist. This involves adopting a questioning attitude that is motivated by curiosity and being aware of personal bias.

For fake news, this might involve asking ourselves the following questions:

    • What type of content is this? Many people rely on social media and aggregators as their main source of news. By reflecting on whether information is news, opinion, or even humor, this can help consolidate information more completely into memory.
    • Where is it published? Paying attention to where information is published is crucial for encoding the source of information into memory. If something is a big deal, a wide variety of sources will discuss it, so attending to this detail is important.
    • Who benefits? Reflecting on who benefits from you believing the content helps consolidate the source of that information into memory. It can also help us reflect on our own interests and whether our personal biases are at play.

Some people tend to be more susceptible to fake news because they are more accepting of weak claims. But we can strive to be more reflective in our open-mindedness by paying attention to the source of information, and questioning our own knowledge if and when we are unable to remember the context of our memories.


What type of content is this? : Many of the popular ideas promoting the idea of Brexit have turned out to be false promises and blatantly untrue. Unfounded fear of “them”, the deployment of myths regarding the supposedly un-elected commission, taking back the control we already had. Promises of lots of money for the NHS also turns out to be a lie. All promoted by individuals who promised a great future for the UK, lots of easy trade deals, etc …

Where is it published?:Are the individuals promoting the ideas credible, honest, trustworthy, and reliable? Did they present any evidence for their claims … ever?

Who benefits?: Offshore hedge funds seeking to make a killing from the collapse of sterling, and billionaires seeking to avoid the EU rules coming into force that would prevent them avoiding tax.

So who are you going to believe and who are you going to ignore?

Who has a track record of making promises that turned out again and again to be false? Whose warnings about it all being very complicated and a rather bad idea have turned out to be right?

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