Fake news may be more prevalent in times of crisis, but the author of this article, French cognitive scientist Hugo Mercier, believes that most people are not as gullible to misinformation as many headlines claim.
He also claims that the consequences of disseminating false news are not really that severe in many cases. While there may be an element of truth to his theories when it comes to celebrity gossip or humorous stories, he is short-sighted when it comes to people’s susceptibility to a lot of government disinformation and fake news of malicious intent, and the severity of consequences that result.
How vulnerable people are to blindly believing falsehoods circulated by malevolent governments or other unscrupulous parties are all too clear to see in Taiwan, such as how the Chinese government is trying to avoid being held responsible for their ineptitude by claiming that COVID-19 was released by the American military, or religious zealots promoting phony cures to further brainwash their vulnerable followers, or even retailers claiming that stocks of toilet paper or other products are in short supply so that they can boost their profits.
The result is an increase in the levels of ignorance and panic in society, sowing confusion and disharmony, and potentially even leading to conflict.
In contrast, Mr Mercier thinks that people are overly sceptical and distrusting of authorities to the point that they ignore official government warnings, opting to follow the recommendations forwarded over social media instead.
However, he fails to recognise the contradiction in his claims that distrust of governments is high in many countries because people are so sceptical, and yet they still willingly trust fake news from unofficial sources. Nor is it clear how this translates into the less serious consequences or reduced susceptibility to fake news that he claims at the beginning of his article.
Nonetheless, the author does offer one useful tip for quickly identifying misinformation in some forwarded messages. He identifies a pattern sometimes found in fake news messages and articles, such as beginning with: “A friend who has an uncle…”.
But actually, there are more common themes, like: “I am a doctor [/nurse/medical professional/insert professional sounding title or job here], and from my [insert many] years of experience…”, or “This is a [government body/official department] warning…”.
These kinds of messages attempt to attribute the misinformation that follows in the text body to someone that the reader would assume to be knowledgeable about the subject and a credible source of information.
Oftentimes, the messages will also contain a mix of accurate and inaccurate information, usually with any true information coming first to establish credibility, and the false points coming in the middle or at the end, where people are assumed to be less on their guard against them. When in doubt, start by using the site I linked to in last week’s post, where you can quickly check to see whether or not the claims of the message have been debunked.