Psychology of fake news.


Byline: Aleena Niaz

OUR propensity for blaming social media for the ills of the world is boundless, and the emergence of fake news is no exception. While it is true that social media has added to the challenge with respect to bots, newsfeed algorithms, and an augmented reach, the spread of misinformation cannot be blamed entirely on technology. Human motivation and error are at the origin of the intentional and unintentional deception, as well as our inability and indifference towards separating fact from fiction.

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This is further exacerbated by indolent and unethical journalism: inadequate fact-checking and corroboration of sources; perfunctory investigative attempts; and flagrant plagiarism. When media houses fail to do their due diligence, the facts become more elusive making it all the more easy for misinformation to spread. If unchecked, content found online can even bleed into traditional broadcast and print media further perpetuating disinformation.

The truth of the matter is that we, as consumers of news, are all susceptible to believing and sharing false information despite our best intentions. This is due to inherent and often unchecked biases present in all of us.

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The first of these is the confirmation bias which is the tendency to seek out, accept, and remember information that supports our pre-existing opinions. We pay more attention to the content that reinforces our beliefs and tend to ignore and discount the type that offers alternative explanations. This heuristic is magnified when there is an emotionally driven subject as is often the case with sensational fake news stories.

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When media houses fail to do their due diligence, the facts become more elusive.

Controversial and often misleading news spreads rapidly and assails its audience from different sources, making it seem as though it is widely accepted as the truth. This bandwagon effect deludes us into equating repetition with credibility which allows media inaccuracy to proliferate unchallenged. This is particularly potent with the dissemination of information on the messaging application WhatsApp in Pakistan. When a message is forwarded by a personal contact, the underlying implication is that they are personally vouching for that particular content with the assumption that they have read and verified the information, which is seldom the case.


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