We all know fake news is a growing problem, but why do lies spread further than the truth?

Fake news /feɪk njuːz/ n. false, often sensational, information shared under the guise of being news. Referred to often by the current President of the United States.

‘Fake news’ is Collins’ 2017 Word of the Year and for good reason – it’s everywhere. Usage of the word has risen 365% since 2016, and that’s (surprisingly) not all down to Trump’s twitter feed.

Trump is the original ‘boy who cried wolf’ of fake news.  Claiming “FAKE NEWS” on any negative stories about himself – even if they’ve been well researched and accurately reported (remember the inauguration crowds and rain?) – he so often paints himself to be a victim of falsities in the media.

Yet recently, he actually was the victim of a fake news story. News of the US president pouring an entire box of fish food into a Koi pond went viral, making Trump look like an impatient oaf. But the truth was quite different.

It unfolded on Twitter. Zack Whittaker, an editor from CBS, was among the first to pick up on the ‘story’, posting pictures, which appeared to show Trump unceremoniously dumping fish food into a precious Koi Pond, on Twitter. This was closely followed by a video from CNN and even a news story on the Guardian’s website.

While it wasn’t long before other journalists pointed out that Trump was in fact copying PM Shinzo Abe, who poured his entire box of food in first, it was the lie that spread fast and far.

Even now the Guardian’s article has been corrected, the mistake is still obvious. Trump feeding fish just isn’t news.

So how did verified sources make this mistake? And why did these stories get spread so far?

We could blame the big shots. The algorithms behind our newsfeeds reward engagement with reach. The more likes, comments and shares a post gets, the more likely you are to see it. Dramatic and sensational, it’s not hard to imagine how fictitious stories might attract more attention than verified news.

But there’s a little more it it than that, and it lies in our psychology.

Cognitive Bias

We’re programmed to be more inclined to believe things that align with our beliefs, or that we want to hear. This motivated reasoning means that those of us who lean more to the left would more readily believe a story about Trump disrespecting a sacred Koi pond, than one about, thinking hypothetically, the president giving his billions to a dog shelter.

Our tribal instincts compel us to share information that reinforces our, and our social sphere’s, ideas about the world – as a form of bonding and virtue signalling. Within our social media bubbles, we reach a form of naive realism in which we believe that our view, and, what appears on our feeds to be a social consensus, is the correct reality.

These cognitive biases mean so many of us just don’t verify news before we share or believe it. Even well-established journalists and reputable news organisations, as demonstrated above, fall trap to our brain’s programming.

How to combat Fake News

So if we’re built to believe lies, how on earth do we combat it?

It’s difficult. Our own inbuilt biases are hard to ignore. Not to mention how good those organisations writing fake news articles are at social sharing. When it comes to getting harmful stories and propaganda out there, they’re the pros.

But I’d like to believe it’s not impossible. If the journalists from CBS and CNN had verified the story by checking other footage, it’s unlikely that the Guardian would have got hold of it and it wouldn’t have spread.

As journalists, our responsibility to check and question everything, even what we want to believe, is more important than ever.

But Barbara McCormack, vice president of education at the Newseum, believes a top down approach may not work. Speaking at Hacks/Hackers in October, she said that the answer lies in “educated readers”.

If we are ever going to beat fake news, the audience will have to pickier about what they believe and share. When the majority of readers only read the headlines, this will be hard work and it’s down to us as writers to try and educate them.

We can start by being a good example. Next time there’s a story you so desperately want to believe, verify before you share.


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