By guest contributor David Rapp and Joe Magliano

Nowadays, just about anyone can produce and post news on the Internet and social media. So it’s not a surprise that fake news, accusations of fake news, and attempts to help people avoid becoming victims of fake news are hot topics of discussion. 

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Source: Thinkstock

Fake news stories can be hard to detect because they intend to deceive and influence—and they often prey on particular belief sets. Psychologists, especially those in the cognitive and social areas, are trying to understand the implications of fake news and figure out ways to empower people to detect and reject it.

For example, David Rapp and his colleagues have actively pursued research to help people detect false information and avoid using it later (Rapp, 2016; Rapp & Braasch, 2014; Rapp, Hinze, Kohlhepp, & Ryskin, 2014).

An important step in the ongoing research involves documenting the different types of fake news, so we can become aware of how they exert influence, and where and when they occur. This knowledge can also be useful for developing instructional approaches and simple suggestions for news consumers.

Below we discuss different types of fake news, each of which may require different strategies to combat their allure and the problematic consequences of exposure to them.

One type of fake news appears when articles intentionally contain false information. For example, the fake Pizzagate story surfaced during the last election cycle on social media and pseudo news sites.

We can protect ourselves against this type of fake news by taking the time and effort to critically think through the information and realize that it is false. However, we often do not have the time and effort to spend on this. If we rely on a surface-level reading of these kinds of fake news articles, we are at risk of being deceived.

This is especially true when the points in a news story are consistent with our own views. This is called “myside bias,” and it’s one of the biggest challenges we face in detecting and rejecting fake news (Stanovich, West, & Toplak, 2013). Myside bias can lead us to believe something that is untrue or dismiss news that actually has merit. So simply rejecting news as fake because it doesn't align with what we believe is also part of the fake news problem.

A second type of fake news is click-bait headlines. Ever read a headline that claimed something outrageous, only to learn that the evidence for that claim was weak at best?  Headlines can be more memorable than the content of an article. And media sites make money every time you click on an article. So the goal is to get you to read the article, often with less concern about the truth contained within.

A third type of fake news is even more subtle, involving overly dramatic headlines.  Sometimes particular news topics are highlighted as important or of public concern, but actually are not truly newsworthy. Do we really care about how many scoops of ice cream the president gets with his dessert, and does that really tell us anything about his presidency? Not really. Focusing on these news topics draws attention away from other more pertinent and important issues. So while the information presented might be true, it’s not really newsworthy.

Fake news is nothing new. However, combatting it necessitates both a willingness to be skeptical and literacy skills that help individuals know when something is wrong and what to do about it.

Here are some recommendations to help you detect and reject fake news:

  • Be aware of the power of “myside bias.” Some news outlets could be trying to make money by catering to your beliefs.
  • Pay attention to the author and source. If an article doesn’t list an author, that’s a big clue that the article might be fake. Reputable news outlets are much less likely to produce entirely fake articles, but you should carefully evaluate those articles, too. 
  • Evaluate the potential reasons for posting a news story. News outlets have agendas, and one common goal is to get you to read and share articles.
  • When people make claims in articles, look closely at the evidence they present to support those claims. If the evidence is obviously an opinion, that particular claim may not be as useful as one that includes evidence to back up the statement.
  • Pay attention to how an author obtained his or her information. Verifiable sources can be trusted more than those that are unidentified or ambiguous. However, there will be times when news outlets must keep their sources anonymous.
  • Make sure headlines match the content of an article.
  • When you read an article, think about whether its content really matters in the grand scheme of things.
  • Most importantly, be a critical thinker. Question what you read, even it lines up with what you believe.

So arm yourself to avoid being fooled by fake news.

David Rapp, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and learning sciences at Northwestern University, and a Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence. His research examines language and memory, focusing on the cognitive mechanisms responsible for successful learning and knowledge failures. His co-edited volume, “Processing Inaccurate Information: Theoretical and Applied Perspectives from Cognitive Science and the Educational Sciences,” was recently published by MIT press. 

Joe Magliano, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University. He teaches courses about cognitive psychology and the psychology of language. His research focuses on how we understand narratives across different media (text, film, graphic narratives) and how we can help struggling readers.

References

Rapp, D.N.  (2016). The consequences of reading inaccurate information. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25, 281-285.

Rapp, D.N., & Braasch, J.L.G., eds.  (2014). Processing Inaccurate Information: Theoretical and Applied Perspectives from Cognitive Science and the Educational Sciences.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rapp, D.N., Hinze, S.R., Kohlhepp, K., & Ryskin, R.A.  (2014). Reducing reliance on inaccurate information.  Memory & Cognition, 42, 11-26.

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