The U.S. presidential election last month did more than just open the front door to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to Donald Trump. It’s also initiated a period of national soul searching about how we get our news. Facebook in particular has come under fire for failing to distinguish or deprecate “fake news” and downright propaganda from accurate reporting in users’ news feeds.
But while the social network undeniably plays a major role in unleashing the tide of misinformation we’re all now swimming against, it’s just one part of a larger problem. Chances are it won’t be resolved any time soon, so the question becomes simply how to limit its influence.
A number of partisan websites have emerged, on both the right and left, that either put a distinct political spin on news events or fabricate stories altogether. A recent BuzzFeed analysis concluded that between a quarter and a third of the stories on these sites are either completely false or contain significant amounts of falsities. And while BuzzFeed found a somewhat higher volume of right-leaning than left-leaning fake news, it’s clear there’s a significant amount of misinformation flowing on both sides.
That matters. Research on what psychologists call the “continued influence effect” suggests that it’s remarkably difficult to prevent information that you know to be false from affecting your judgment anyway. Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t have a mechanism for removing false information from your memory, so those ideas continue to be recalled.
As a result, we’re forced to think just as thoroughly about ideas we know to be false as those we know to be true. That makes it difficult to counteract the impact of these false statements that then stubbornly persist. That being the case, there are still a few things you can do.
First, it’s helpful to take a cue from another aspect of BuzzFeed’s analysis, which found that mainstream media sites generally publish truthful content. That means that despite widespread distrust of the media establishment (a suspicion that President-elect Trump continues to publicly encourage), the news reporting you’ll find in “traditional” outlets is statistically more likely to be the truth–even if you disagree with the opinions shared by columnists in those same publications.
If the onslaught of fake news worries you, one thing you can do is subscribe to a reputable newspaper or magazine. For all its shortcomings, the press remains an important source of verifiable information in an era when anyone can garner attention with a clickbait headline. Not only can it help ensure a continued flow of accurate reporting, but effectively forcing yourself onto a steady diet of “real news” can at least give you a consistent informational baseline against which to judge conflicting angles.
Second, stop using your social media feeds as your primary source of news. Most people tend to live in echo chambers of their own creation, which are then compounded algorithmically. They follow people on Twitter whose views fit with their own. They make friends and correspond on Facebook with people who share similar ideas. As a result, most of the news stories they encounter on social media have a slant that mirror their own biases.
Part of the reason this echo chamber is so problematic is that we tend to be more skeptical of stories that diverge from our opinions. When we encounter ideas that are already consistent with what we believe, we’re more likely to latch onto them.
This bias means that we’re more likely to take the time to fact check something we read when we’re inclined to disagree with it than when we’re inclined to agree with it–even though the stories we agree with may be no more accurate than those we don’t. So leaning less heavily on social media for news may expose you to more content that you’ll actually want to bother to look into.
And indeed, that’s the other way to minimize the impact of fake news on your brain–just by carving out time to read more deeply about the topics you care about. Because ultimately, defending yourself against a steady tide of misinformation isn’t easy, and there are no shortcuts. It’s frankly easy to mislead people in 500 words on the internet, particularly if those people get most or all of their information in 500-word bursts online, as many of us do.
The antidote here is depth, and depth takes time. But picking up real expertise on important issues means committing to learning about them. That could mean reading long-form magazines that treat topics in-depth, watching documentaries by credible filmmakers, or buying nonfiction books by experienced journalists and authors.
It takes work. But the reason efforts like these stand the best shot at protecting you from false information is because the ideas that have the biggest impact on your attitudes, opinions, and actions are those that cohere with your total body of knowledge. The more you expand that, the better. It’s when you don’t know much to begin with that the impact of individual false statements gets magnified.
As you learn more, the interconnections among the many facts you already know will crowd out the falsehoods you encounter. These coherent networks of knowledge are self-reinforcing. Yes, there’s always confirmation bias inherent in a mental system like this, threatening to yank it in one direction or another. But the more developed that system is, the better it’ll be at flagging potential ideas that sound too good (or bad) to be true.