How To Avoid Believing Something Dumb.
The techniques fact-checkers use to figure out what’s true.
Hey! Did you know that aliens once attacked the Earth after a meteor crashed into a farmer’s field in New Jersey? Or that there are more trees on Earth than there are stars in the entire Milky Way? How about the fact that the coronavirus is a secret plot by Bill Gates to implant tracking devices into all of our bodies?
Ok fine, these might not actually be true. But there are a lot of people who believe they are. And though it’s (very, very) tempting to dismiss them as idiots, the fact is that they’re often falling for the same kind of cognitive tricks that the media uses to fool all of us.
Ever since Kellyanne Conway proudly declared that she was offering alternative facts (and long before that really) it’s become increasingly common to judge information based on whether it feels right. Even if you don’t think you do this, you do.
So how do we safeguard against fake news? The truth is, it can be really difficult, but here’s a checklist you can use to at least minimise your chances of believing something dumb.
Check if the fact is true before reacting.
We’ve all been there. We read or hear something, and before we even know what’s happening we’ve already retweeted it, shared it on Facebook, made a Tik Tok, about it and told all of our friends. The problem is, if it turns out to be false, it’s much harder to swallow your pride and admit that you were wrong.
This one isn’t technically a fact-checking technique, but should be top of your list for obvious reasons. Pride is a bitch, and the easiest way to avoid dealing with it is to make a reasonable effort to check your facts before opening your big virtual mouth.
Question your sources.
You have sources that you trust. Your go-to places and people who you believe will tell it to you straight. Coincidentally, these people will often tell you things that you like to hear, or if you don’t like it, they’ll agree with you about why it’s bad.
There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s called trust. But it’s important to remember that your news sources, whoever they are, are not unbiased. Online news is a business, and it survives by catering to a certain demographic; in this case yours. Stories (and more importantly the perspective from which those stories are told) are always chosen to elicit a certain reaction within you. Try getting into the habit of asking what reaction the story you’re reading is trying to provoke. This can be a valuable way of deciding whether to fully trust it or not
Beware of information that triggers emotion.
Speaking of reactions, consider the following scenario. Imagine if I said that broccoli is better for you than carrots. You probably wouldn’t react too strongly unless you really like carrots. You might recall something you read about broccoli which supports my statement, or something about carrots which discredits it. Either way, we’d be able to have a reasonable discussion about the relative merits of broccoli and carrots, and still remain friends afterwards.
But what if I were to claim that being morbidly obese is better for your health than excessive exercise? You’d probably feel very differently. Depending on who you are, you’d be determined to believe or disbelieve this information. Because it would trigger an emotional response, you’d also be more inclined to share it.
A good rule of thumb is to double-check any information which triggers an emotional response. In fact, make a habit of double-checking any information. Especially if it triggers an emotional response. Whether you’re delighted because that the thing you want to believe is supported, or outraged because the thing you want to believe is being challenged it pays to double-check. Or better yet, triple-check. There are simply too many sources of untrustworthy information out there to take anything at face value.
Be wary of information that has been too precisely repeated.
Ok, you’ve done a quick Google search and a bunch of identical results popped up. Time to start hate-sharing on Twitter and Facebook. Right? Actually not just yet.
Lots of “news” websites simply curate news from other sources. Because of the way that Google’s search rankings work, it’s often better to regurgitate whatever information is trending right now, even if it’s wrong. Thanks to the short half-life of information on the internet, it’s unlikely that people will remember for long if you make a mistake.
A fairly high profile example of this was Bloomberg’s 2018 “Big Hack” story. Bloomberg claimed that the Chinese had successfully infiltrated the supply chain of several large American tech companies with chips that allowed them to spy on people using their devices.
The story spread like wildfire for weeks, appearing on countless technology websites and creating significant security concerns. It was only when other news organisations tried to repeat the findings that the problems. The story unravelled, no evidence was found by anybody else or produced by Bloomberg, and the story was widely debunked. But of course, by that time, many people had already made up their minds. The story had appeared widely across the internet even though it all originated from one single report.
Judge information on its own merits.
One last technique that is used to spread disinformation is sprinkling false pieces of information amongst facts to lend legitimacy to them. Actually, I’ve used a similar tactic in this very article. Of the three facts I mentioned at the top, one is actually true. There really are more trees on planet Earth than there are stars in the Milky Way. In fact, it’s not even close!
You were probably happy to dismiss the fact because it goes against your intuitions. You’re already primed to ignore it. The Milky Way is incomprehensibly larger than the Earth after all, so it’s easy to overlook the fact that its size is mostly empty space (the next closest star to us after the Sun is over 4000 light-years away).
When the accurate fact is combined with fiction, you’re even less likely to believe it. In fact, some of you will still be unwilling to accept it even after I’ve come clean (go ahead and do your fact-checking, I’ll wait). The point I’m making is, we don’t just judge information by its content, we judge it by the company it keeps. Information can be wrong (or right) by association.
Of course, exactly the same technique can be used to increase the credibility of information. Nestling a false piece of information along with others that are true makes it much easier for you to fall for it. Once again, this is especially true if the false information lines up with your intuitions. It’s the principle behind the “Two lies one truth” game. When you’re not sure which is which, the truth starts to sound false, and vice-versa.
If you’re presented with a string of facts from a single source, get into the habit of judging them each on their own merits.
Strong opinions, loosely held.
Even with the best will in the world, you’ll end up believing things which aren’t true sometimes. There’s simply no way to be right all of the time. Most issues are complex enough that there will legitimately be at least two ways of looking at them. What’s more, a full understanding requires more knowledge and research than most people are willing or able to do.
The best defence against being fooled isn’t to try to never make mistakes, but to be willing to hold your hands up and change your mind when you do. Hold your beliefs loosely enough that you’re willing to listen to new information when it presents itself. As Stephen Hawking once observed; “The greatest enemy of knowledge isn’t ignorance, it’s the illusion of knowledge.”