#FakeNews: How do we decide what’s true?

Misinformation is as old as the human race – emerging from a ‘post-truth’ society will require more than blaming tech.

Writer: Karolay Lorenty
Editor: Ebani Dhawan
Artist: Patrick Marenda

The pandemic of misinformation isn’t over, and there is no sign it will stop any time soon. Ever since the avalanche of ‘fake news’ in 2016 popularised the term in global politics, its influence and damaging effects seem to have only increased. This year, misinformation may have caused hundreds of deaths by inciting people to ingest toxic products in hopes to prevent COVID-19 infection. But even though its virulent nature has become apparent more recently, misinformation is nothing new. 

Some myths have been passed on from one generation to another. For instance, we may have heard from our well-intentioned parents that we can keep colds at bay if we avoid going out with wet hair and consume enough vitamin C. But, actually, our wet hair won’t make us more attractive to germs, and the research on the benefits of vitamin C in cold prevention is rather inconclusive. These may seem like benign examples, but home remedies for a cold are only a jump away from home remedies for COVID-19. Other myths make their way out of the family realm and gain worldwide recognition. A remarkable example is that we only use 10% of our brain. This myth is so ingrained in the population, it became the basis of Lucy, a film starring Scarlett Johanson that explored what humans could achieve if only we maximised our brains’ capacity. This mishap, however, did not prevent Lucy from becoming a box office success, making more than $130m worldwide and reinforcing misperceptions about the brain. 

Is it possible that falsehoods are more common than we think? The best-selling author and historian Yuval Noah Harari has named us the ‘Post-Truth’ species. He goes as far as to say that we owe human success to our ability to generate, spread and believe fictions. In his latest book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, he says “When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month – that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years – that’s a religion”. Even though many people would frown upon this bold comparison, scientifically-minded individuals can agree that the Bible contains a myriad of myths and contradictions. It’s not meant as a critique; actually, Harari praises the ability of the so-called fictions to promote cooperation across human history. This is not to say that we should accept ‘alternative facts’, but if we acknowledge their predominance throughout history, we are left with a disturbing question: can we know what’s true and what isn’t? 

Unfortunately, our brains don’t seem to care much about the truth. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman gives a thorough account of the cognitive biases that shape our perceptions and beliefs. He presents two characters that drive our thinking: system 1 is involuntary, automatic and quick, while system 2 is conscious, logical and requires mental effort. Although we like to think that system 2 is the main driver, our brains would rather save the mental energy and use shortcuts whenever possible. For example, most of the information we encounter in our ordinary lives is likely to be true. So when presented with information on a topic we have little knowledge of, we are skewed to believe that the information is valid. 

This assumption of truth is often useful, as we can update our judgements later when presented with opposing information. However, our revision process may be hindered. Diversions decrease our ability to ‘unbelieve’, so our current world of distractions may not be the ideal environment to establish the truth. On the other hand, our tendency to believe information that is easy to process can leave us vulnerable to deception. Repeated exposure can trigger an ‘illusion of truth’ even with implausible claims, and simply presenting information in rhyme can increase its perceived veracity. 

Trust also plays a key role in credibility. We’re likely to believe something that a friend or celebrity has shared. But most people rarely take the time to verify or think critically. Before further amplifying an outrageous story or a wonderful cure, we should investigate the context and primary source. Even when making use of trusted sources, we need to be aware of the biases that they hold, exercising our critical thinking with different viewpoints. Otherwise, as we mindlessly scroll on our phones, false information that we don’t pay attention to could shape our misinformed beliefs. Dim recollections of headlines or facts we ‘read somewhere’ may not form a strong argument, but they can influence what we believe to be true. Deliberation and critical thinking have been negatively associated with vulnerability to fake news. Taking the time to think about the information we are exposed to can definitely pay off. 

In the age of mass information, independent thinking is essential. However, we cannot fall prey to overconfidence in our own judgement. Or else, we could succumb to the skepticism of conspiracy theories – the triumph of their believers’ perception of the truth over mainstream information. If the ‘real facts’ are hard to obtain and we think we can only trust ourselves, then what else is there to do but look for those that can also see truth as we see it? They are just a web search away. 

If we can’t trust our intuition, our sources or our judgement, how can we decide what’s true? There are no simple answers. But we could, perhaps, be more mindful of the information we consume, and carefully choose the sources we get it from. Importantly, we should conserve some humility, and understand that whatever our conclusion on what’s true – we may well be wrong

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