Did you know? We are currently not only facing a pandemic, but also a so-called infodemic. First of all, this only means that we are flooded by information about the current corona-pandemic. However, in between this information there is a lot of mis- and disinformation being spread. But why are fake news so contagious? Who spreads fake news and how? How can we spot them?
This blog entry is a result of my participation in the Super Fast 24h Instagram Challenge with the topic ‘contagious’ by FastForwardScience! A lot of you asked to have the story in a text form, so here you go! I will include the instagram story in the end of this post.
What is the Difference Between Mis- and Disinformation?
It is misinformation when something was misunderstood and shared by accident and disinformation if wrong information was fabricated on purpose. Some examples are: Playing down the severety, panicmongering, conspiracy theories, and doubtful health recommendations. A study by Brennen and colleagues 2020) which investigated 225 pieces of false information showed that 59% of disinformation twisted reality and 38% were fabricated completely (see figure 1).
What Makes us Susceptible to Fake News?
More than 2.9 billion people world wide use social media on a regular basis. Therefore, it has gotten very easy to share information and give them a big reach. Especially now during times of COVID-19 we are flooded by headlines and personal opinions and it is becoming difficult to discriminate truth from lies, peculiarly if news go viral and we are – understandiby- more anxious than usual already.
A lot of it has to to with trust. If someone, that we trust, shares information online, we trust the information more than if someone else shares it. Our brain reacts strongly to new things, as novelty is associated with a potential reward and therefore a potential release of dopamine. A functional MRI study from Brady and Colleagues (2017) showed for example, that the thalamus (brain area that sorts incoming sensory information like hearing or seeing and relays it to the cortex) and the sensory cortex are especially sensitive to surprising information.
When we are exposed to false information repeatedly, they gain trustworthiness. Furthermore, our brain sees texts as more important if their emotional value is bigger and they therefore act on our feelings. These texts are typically shared more often than others.
And: We are lazy! Believing disinformation is often easier than dealing with the whole complexity of the situation.
Can Fabricated News Evoke Wrong memories?
It seems like it! In 2018, Elizabeth Loftus and colleagues askes 3140 irish people with different political backgrounds how they are going to vote. Afterwards, they were confronted with six different news of which two were completely fabricated (but supported their politcal beliefs). Almost 50% of the participants claimed, that they had specific memories of the fabricated news, some could even name more details. (However, maybe they just wanted to seem like they are informed)
How do Fake News Spread?
‘Fake news spread faster and more easily than this virus, and it’s just as dangerous’WHO Director General
Back in the days without internet we got our news mostly from newspapers and/or TV and shared it in small circles of family and friends. Nowadays it is easy to write your own stories and share them unfiltered with many more people.
We are often – if not always – located in a so-called filter-bubble: A place in which news are only shared with people that already have the same beliefs. This could be a group of friends, or a group of followers with the same interests. If we are sharing something with this group, it is very likely for us to receive approval. We feel attracted to sources that already support our own views. This is called confirmation bias and it makes it hard for us to see the truth. If we already believe in conspiracy theories, it is very probable that we will believe a new conspiracy theory that fits or adds to our beliefs.
Who is Spreading the Fake News and Why?
Brennen and colleagues (2020) showed, that 80% of fake news are spread by ‘normal’ people and 20% from policians and celebreties. The latter caused 69% of the interaction. And the reasons? Well, some people want to feel important and be the one that changes or saves the world. Some like to create panic. For others it could be even an economic advantage because they want to sell things like ‘cures’.
How to Spot Fake News
Fake news are not only a problem today, their prevalence increased drastically over the last years. And right now they can endanger many lifes (e.g. the claim that drinking bleach could cure COVID-19). Preventive actions can only work out if everyone works together. That’s why it’s important to spot fake news before accidentally spreading them.
Check the following questions when you receive new information from family and friends:
- What’s the source? Is there another, independent source that supports it? Is the person a real expert in the field?
- What kind of language has been used? Is it overly emotional? Does it use a lot of fancy words? Fake news alert!
- Is the information very exclusive? A secret? Something that only that person has found out so far? Fake news alert!
- Was a real scientific process involved to get that information? Did several people work on it (independently)?
- Does the image/video really belong to that event or was it taken from another context? Try reverse image search on google!
Here you can find the story with which I participated in the challenge. The goal was to create a story about the topic ‘contagious’ within 24h. I figured that the youtube upload has some errors in the image (at least for me), so here is also a link to the story on instagram directly. It is in german, but with english subs.
Stay sceptical, and trust good science! ❤
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Brady et al., 2017: https://bit.ly/2Zauq9c
Brennen et al., 2020: https://bit.ly/2Zj1oUH
Loftus et al., 2019: https://bit.ly/2zMljR2