How to Recognize and Combat Fake News

George J. Ziogas

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It's tempting to pin the blame for fake news on the actions of foreign governments, intelligence agencies and nefarious hackers out for some positive attention and a fast buck, but the reality is far more nuanced. Until these nuances and misconceptions are recognized, it will be impossible for individual users, the government or the public at large to overcome the fake news crisis and restore truth to the news media.

The truth is that much of the fake news that plagues social media feeds, mobile devices and computer screens does indeed originate in countries that employ state-manipulated media or the basements of individual computer nerds. But crafting a fake news story and writing an outrageous headline is one thing; getting the false information to spread far and wide is another thing altogether.

No matter how compelling the headline or how outrageous the story, no piece of fake news can spread without the willing participation of hundreds of thousands of social media users around the country and across the world. So what do these super spreaders have in common, and why do some fake news stories catch fire while others die in the newsfeeds where they originated?

In the end, the widespread dissemination and public acceptance of fake news stories has more to do with what's between our ears than what's on our computer screens or mobile devices. The problem is confirmation bias, the innate human desire to seek out information that confirms the beliefs people already hold.

The associations responsible for confirmation bias aren't necessarily voluntary, and that makes the instinct particularly difficult to control. Unconscious bias and preexisting worldviews play a huge role in how confirmation bias manifests in the real world, and the first step toward overcoming fake news is to recognize confirmation bias in yourself.

So how can you fight the scourge of fake news and its negative impact on the country and the world at large? How do you recognize your own confirmation bias and face up to your own preexisting prejudices? Here are some timely tips to get you started.

Consider the Source

Was the headline you're currently reading shared by someone who shares your political beliefs and worldview, or by a friend who is diametrically opposed to the candidates you favor? If confirmation bias is at work, it's probably the former, so think about where the story is coming from and how you're reacting.

Confirmation bias is a strong psychological urge, and it's at the heart of how many social media sites do business. By curating their newsfeeds and serving up stories that garner the most clicks, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter earn millions, but the spread of fake news is often the result.

Seek Out Stories That Challenge Your Current Worldview

There's a strong desire to read and share stories that confirm your worldview and your current political beliefs, but confirmation bias also contributes to the problem of fake news. So instead of reading endless stories that tell you what you think you already know, seek out stories that actively challenge the way you see the world.

If you're a staunch republican, take an occasional trip to MSNBC to see what the liberals are talking about. If you lean further left, turn on Fox News to view current news events through a different filter.

These occasional forays outside your comfort zone will do you a world of good at fighting confirmation bias, but there's another big benefit. If you do your searching online, you're training the algorithms to be more balanced, and that could blunt the impact of confirmation bias in the future

Is the Headline Misleading?

Misleading headlines are the stock and trade of fake news creators, so much so that the headline and the underlying story often have nothing in common. Unfortunately, much of fake news is spread by social media users who never read the story before passing it on.

Reacting to a headline may give users a hit of dopamine and feed the outrage centers in their brains, but it does little to foster a reasoned discussion of current events. So before you pass a story on and make yourself part of the problem, take a minute to compare the headline and the actual text of the article.

Read the headline, then click through to the story and read the first couple of paragraphs. If the two have little in common, do yourself and your social media friends a favor and either report or just ignore it.

Fake news is a major issue in the United States and around the world, and the problem is only growing more serious. With more upcoming elections on the horizon, it's never been more important for individual social media users to take action. By recognizing the tendency to confirm previous biases and fighting back against it, those users can reduce the scourge of fake news and help make the world a better place to live.

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