Lessons from lies – Fake news

There is little doubt that we live in an age with access to more information than any other. All you have to do is log onto your PC and type into Google whatever you want to know and within 0.28 seconds you will get 3.44 million results, it really is science fiction. But having lots of information isn’t the same as having reliable information, how do you know that what your reading is true?

Fake news and false information

Fake news is certainly not new, in 1835 it was reported in a New York newspaper that a telescope “of vast dimensions” could see what was happening on the moon. It caused a sensation and the paper’s circulation increased from 8,000 to more than 19,000. The only problem, it was a complete fiction or fake news concocted by the editor, Richard Adams Locke. It may not be new but fake news is certainly faster moving and far more prolific fuelled by the internet, the growth in social media, globalisation and a lack of regulation.

But before we go any further let’s take a step back and clarify what we mean by fake news. Firstly, there are completely false stories created to deliberately misinform, think here about the moon story although even that contained some facts. There was an astronomer called Sir John Herschel who did indeed have a telescope “of vast dimensions” in his South African observatory, but he did not witness men with bat wings, unicorns, and bipedal beavers on the moon’s surface. Secondly, stories that may have some truth to them, but are not completely accurate, a much more sophisticated and convincing version of the above and probably harder to detect.

We will leave aside the motives for creating fake news but they range from politics, to pranks and as was the case of Richard Adams Locke, commercial gain.

Here are a few headlines:

5G weakens the immune system, making us more vulnerable to catching the virus
If you can hold your breath for 10 seconds, then you don’t have the virus
Fuel pump handles pose a particularly high risk of spreading the Corona-19 infection
And more controversy, Health secretary Matt Hancock stating that testing figures had hit 122,347 on April 30

The first three are fake, the third is based on facts. Click here to make up your own mind as to its truth.

But why do we believe these stories?

Quick to judge A study from the University of Toulouse Capitole, found that when participants were asked to make a quick judgment about whether a news story was real or fake, they were more likely to get it wrong. This is somewhat worrying given the short attention span and patterns of behaviour displayed by those surfing the net.

We think more like lawyers than scientists – Commonly called confirmation bias, our ability to favour information that confirms our existing beliefs. Lawyers examine evidence with a preconceived objective, to prove their client’s innocence whereas scientists remain open minded, in theory at least. An interesting aspect of this is that well educated people may be more susceptible because they have the ability to harness far more information to support their opinion. This is a bias of belief not of knowledge.  

Illusory truth effect – This is the tendency to believe false information after repeated exposure. First identified in a 1977 study at Villanova University and Temple University. It would be wrong to ignore the man who many believe (wrongly) invented the term fake news, including himself, Donald Trump. He is a master of repetition, for example Trump used the expression “Chinese virus” more than 20 times between March 16 and March 30, according to the website Factbase.

Gullibility, the failure to ask questions We are prone to believe stories that “look right”, Psychologists refer to this as “processing fluency”. Experiments have found that “fluent information” tends to be regarded as more trustworthy and as such more likely to be true. Images are especially powerful, for example researchers have found that people believed that macadamia nuts were from the same family as peaches if there was a picture of a nut next to the text.

The same photo but from a different angle

Google it! but do so with care

Most educators will encourage students to become independent learners, be curious and ask questions, solve their own problems, it is one of the most powerful educational lessons, and as Nelson Mandela said, education can be used to change the world. But we need to be careful that what is learned is not just a bunch of facts loosely gathered to prove one person’s point of view. Mandela’s vision of changing the world through education was based on the education being broad and complex not narrow.

We are of course very fortunate to have such a vast amount of information from which to learn, but that curiosity needs to be tempered with a critical mind set. The questions asked should be thoughtfully constructed with knowledge of one’s own personal bias and the information analysed against the backdrop of the source of that information and possible motives of the authors

Guidelines for students using Google

1. Develop a Critical Mindset – this is the ability to think logically, figuring out the connections, being active rather than passive, challenging what you read against what you already know and perhaps most importantly challenging your own ideas in the context of the new information. Are you simply finding information to support your own views, an example of confirmation bias.

2. Check the Source and get confirmation – for websites always look at the URL for the identity of the organisation and the date of the story. Lots of fake news is news rehashed from the past to support the argument currently being made. What is the authority quoted, why not cut that from the story and paste into google to find out who else is using that information and in what context. Look for spelling mistakes and generalisations e.g. most people agree. These terms are vague and give the impression that this is a majority view.

3. Evaluate the evidence and don’t take images at face value – use your critical thinking skills to validate the evidence. Who is the authority quoted, do they have any reasons or motives for making these claims? Images as already mentioned are very powerful, but fake images are easy to create on the internet and a clever camera angle can easily mislead.

4. Does it make sense? – an extension of logical thinking but perhaps more emotional, how do you feel about this, what’s you gut instinct. The unconscious part of your brain can help make complex decisions sometimes more accurately than logical thought.

With large amounts of free knowledge, there are calls for schools to be doing more to better equip children to navigate the internet. In fact, back in 2017 the House of Lords published a report ‘Growing up with the internet’ which recommended that “Digital literacy should be the fourth pillar of a child’s education alongside reading, writing and mathematics”.

It’s not just school children that need this fourth pillar, we probably all do.

And of course the picture at the start of this blog is Fake!

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