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False Memories

How to Spot Fake News

Can you tell the difference between fake and real news?

How confident are you in your ability to reliably spot fake news? Although most Americans report to be fairly confident, several studies show that the majority of us aren't able to accurately distinguish fake from real news. As the Cambridge professor who cooked up a fake news vaccine (which doesn't require a needle, btw), I've been giving many talks on fake news and the spread of misinformation. As any good psychologist, I realized that while I have the room, why not run a little experiment myself? I now frequently start my talks by testing how well the audience can spot fake news. Although there's some natural variation, the results often concern me, and this includes talks I give to fellow scientists!

Discerning "fake" from "real" news is difficult for anyone, and I don't believe that there is a "magic recipe" (nor a magic vaccine for that matter!) but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. I often get emails asking about "tips", and I have worked with The Economist and RAI, among others, to offer some guidelines, but I wanted to respond by summarizing in one post what I hope are some useful "post-truth" rules of thumb for everyone:

1) If it sounds too ridiculous to be true, it probably is! Don't fall for clickbait. Headlines are often designed specifically to make you want to click on them. Do you just have to scratch that itch and click to find out? Don't! I recently did an interview with a journalist who admits to literally cooking up the most ridiculous and hyperbolic headlines to reel in clicks ("the real truth behind X"). Ignoring clickbait will not only make this whole enterprise less profitable, but it will also slow the transmission of viral fake content. If you must click on it, read beyond the headlines and investigate the article critically.

2) Be aware of politically framed content. Check your biases. Does it take you less than 2 seconds to vehemently agree or disagree with an article or headline? Then it's probably framed to increase polarization. Psychological framing sets the stage for how we process information, a particular political frame can bias us from the outset! ("Crime rate highest among immigrants"). Much research shows that we selectively attend to and process information that we agree with more fluently than information we disagree with, this is also known as "confirmation or myside bias". If you find yourself strongly agreeing or disagreeing with an article within seconds, its purpose is probably to get under your skin and fuel conflict between different groups in society!

3) Facts go viral less often than falsehoods. Virality is not always a good indicator of what's important. As one recent report put it, lies often spread faster and farther than the truth. Viral content that gets shared over and over again is frequently based on things other than factual accuracy. Once a headline, video, or meme reaches a social tipping point, the fact that it's been shared a million times becomes social "proof" in itself that it must be important, which sustains its virality, misinforming more and more people. Instead of critically appraising content, people often share (fake) news articles because they like the messenger, because the article speaks to their political biases, because the headline is provocative or simply because everyone's doing it. It is important to remember that none of these motives guarantee accuracy. Share selectively with appropriate caution.

4) Verify the source and context. Many fake news articles state blatant falsehoods without providing a source. They get away with it because we are constantly bombarded with information. Under cognitive constraint, people are often browsing unsuspectingly or not paying close attention. Moreover, when a source is provided, these articles typically employ a "fake expert" technique. A fake expert is someone who sounds professional or accredited but actually has no expertise on the subject matter. And even when verifiable facts are presented, the issue can be more subtle, such as factual quotes presented out of context. If you tell me something that sounds concerning, but leave out the fact that the context is entirely satirical, the interpretation of the same story would be widely different. Source and context issues are especially prevalent in political debates about social issues, with campaigners throwing around numbers without providing scientific evidence.

5) Don't get most of your news from social media websites. These are not fact-checked news sites. Social media websites allow businesses and political campaigners to target you with sponsored ads that look like real stories. For example, Facebook allowed organizations to purchase ads to specifically target and mobilize online hate groups. Moreover, news feeds are tailored to your prior click behavior and engagement with content. This means that the platform selectively feeds users news stories, creating so-called "echo chambers" and "filter bubbles". With no shortage of fake news bots, twitter is no source for accurate news either. Try to find reliable and accurate news outlets.

Fact-checking websites such as Snopes and MediaBiasFactCheck may be helpful. For example, it is important to separate the political leaning of a news outlet from its factual accuracy. For example, "Psychology Today" is labelled as "pro-science" with "high accuracy". Fox news on the other hand is classified as having "right-wing bias" with mixed accuracy whereas MSNBC often has a "left-wing" bias with mixed accuracy. The New York Times may be "left of center" but is rated as having high factual accuracy.

These are just indicators of course, but once you get the hang of it, don't forget to pay it forward, let's help inoculate each other against the spread of misinformation!


van der Linden, S. (2017). Beating the hell out of fake news. Ethical Record: The Proceedings of the Conway Hall Ethical Society 122(6), 4-7.

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