The biggest difference now is the speed with which technology enables distorted messages to be disseminated.
Rapidly evolving tech has enabled the 21st century to accurately be termed as the Information Age, and with so much data available, it’s becoming increasingly important to efficiently sort through which of it is stealing our time and which is capable of helping us to lead a better life.
Fake news infects our waking day in more ways than political discourse. It can take many insidious forms, such as:
- Fake sites … shams designed to resemble real news outlets,
- Clickbait … distorted headlines promising unsubstantiated claims,
- Partisan news … facts are manipulated without counterpoints to fit an agenda, and
- Slanted news … a kernel of fact is taken out of context to make a biased point.
Nowhere more than cyberspace is caveat emptor a lighthouse beacon, warning against the siren calls that can dash some aspect of your life against the rocks of deceit.
So, vigilance is your first line of defense.
However, qualifying the message is only one stage of the verification process.
What if the questionable content is something you want to believe?
This is the true lure of fake news. It’s based on a behavioral defense mechanism known as cognitive dissonance. It occurs when information presented to you is not in accord with information you’ve already accepted as fact or with habits you’ve already established.
This creates discomfort, something that virtually every body strives to avoid, whether it’s a belief system or a personal preference.
Overcoming this tendency — if one is so inclined — is harder than it looks.
Much personal resistance is due to confirmation bias. That’s the tendency to interpret new evidence as proof of one’s existing beliefs or theories.
Here’s an example as it pertains to finance:
And here’s an example of how it can affect your perspective if you only focus on the facts that you prioritize:
In a complex society, nothing’s ever as simple as it seems, and yet there’s a tendency to oversimplify solutions.
- That’s why get-rich-quick schemes will never run out of suckers;
- That’s why miracle cures will always have a booming market; and
- That’s why conspiracy theories will always have unwavering advocates.
Pointedly, this list could go on. And on.
The ultimate irony is that, while independent, non-partisan, and objective fact-checking organizations are available to all conscientious citizens and consumers, it’s not enough for some that these resources conduct their research in accordance with a long-established code of ethics.
Incredibly, according to Judith Donath, a Harvard Berkman Faculty Fellow and former director of the MIT Media Lab’s Sociable Media Group:
“[In] the online world of information, material markers count for less. Instead, news sharing has become a prominent identity signal: We proclaim our affiliations by posting links to articles that reflect our groups’ taste and beliefs …
“Posting any story, real or fake, that conforms to your community’s viewpoint bolsters your ties with them. Even if it is false, you have still demonstrated your shared values.”
These tastes and beliefs are cultivated by first generalizing any resource and/or opponent in order to discredit them. For example:
- The marketing gurus have secrets they don’t want you to know;
- Big Pharma is keeping better cures away from you; and
- The government is plotting against you.
The fake news message then capitalizes on a tried-and-true one-two punch of effective marketing:
- Tell people what they want to hear, confirming their beliefs, and then
- Bring an emotional appeal into it.
It’s no surprise that if anyone’s going to monetize this formula online, it’s the younger generation. After all, they grew up with the likes of Facebook and know how to manipulate it.
This simple system has become a cottage industry for teens in the tiny village of Veles, Macedonia:
- Find a lucrative target market through laser-focused keywords and tracking analysis,
- Create Facebook fan pages with content designed to appease and go viral,
- Drive the traffic to a website that has Google AdSense embedded, and
- Make bank.
Blatant exploitation at its thrilling best.
Understanding how and why fake news works provides a basis to rise above it by taking rational action:
- Think for yourself,
- Confirm any claim by referring to multiple impartial sources, and
- Don’t empower online trolls by engaging with them.
The phenomenon itself isn’t going to go away. Just know you’re better than that. Abide.