How to defend yourself against fake news

July 9, 2019 - 06:55

How can we defend ourselves against false information? NTNU researchers provide some tips and tackle the problem.

How can we protect ourselves against fake news, populism and half-truths? (Photo: Shealah Craighead / White House)

Lots of us are connected to the media – both traditional and social – more or less from the time we wake up until we fall asleep. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the information.

That’s especially the case when we know that a lot of the information we’re getting is wrong.

“Misinformation is spread by anyone who can achieve something by doing it,” says Associate Professor Melanie Magin at NTNU’s Department of Sociology and Political Science.

We’re not just talking people who are on the far left or far right of the political spectrum, whatever that means. Any individuals who have an agenda within a specific area that they’re passionate about may hop on the misinformation bandwagon, be it about opposing vaccines or an environmental issue.

So how can we discern right from wrong?

Elderly struggle the most

During Trondheim’s The Big Challenge Science Festival earlier this summer, Magin and her colleagues NTNU Professor Toril Aalberg and Professor Jason Reifler from the University of Exeter talked about populist communication, fake news and the problem of misconceptions.

Misinformation can be spread by anyone who has something to gain from fake news. (Illustration: Colourbox)

“Younger people are generally better than the elderly at checking whether claims are true. They learn how to do it in school,” says Aalberg, who heads NTNU’s Department of Sociology and Political Science.

Magin concurs. “The elderly are probably more used to claims already having been fact checked by traditional media. They’re less cautious,” she says.

The elderly tend to believe the statements they pick up on social media, and may share them with others as well. This applies particularly to assertions that confirm the views they already regard as true.

“But that doesn’t necessarily mean that young people have full control,” says Aalberg.

Facts don’t change minds much

Reifler is studying how people’s perceptions are rarely swayed by facts. Once you believe something, arguments against this belief will either bounce off you, or they may even reinforce the beliefs you already have. That makes it all the more important to defend against misinformation at the outset.

Magin points out that misinformation can remain lodged in your brain long after you forget where it came from.

Younger people are generally better than their elders in checking if statements are actually true or not. (Photo: Colourbox)

You might initially reject something you’ve read or heard, perhaps because the source is so dubious. But the misinformation remains. After a while you forget where you got it from, and then you might start to think that this misinformation was actually true.

Magin prefers the term “misinformation” to “fake news,” in part because certain populists use “fake news” in referring to what traditional media engage in to deliberately promote their own agenda, often against the populists themselves. These are people who do not like the free press – at least not when it voices criticism against them.

Researching populists

Aalberg also led the Populism project, which ended in April this year. This was an international research project supported by the EU that addressed what populism is, how populists communicate and many other aspects of the topic. It was highlighted as a success story of the EU’s COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology) programme.

Among the more practical results of the research is a teaching programme. Pupils and students debate and discuss what populism is and become aware of various issues related to it.

The culminating book of the project, Communicating Populism, also offers practical advice for citizens generally, politicians and the media. Their suggestions can be found at the bottom of the article.

Populist effect exaggerated

Aalberg and Magin are not as afraid of the consequences of all this misinformation as some others are.

How do we make sure that social media doesn’t play a negative role in elections? (Illustration: Colourbox)

For example, Magin doubts whether European elections are in danger of being affected to any great extent by people who are trying to manipulate social media. Trondheim Analytica has described this concern in a project that deals precisely with the topic of democracy and the influence of people who want to manipulate it in a certain direction through the strategic use of misinformation.

“The danger of ending up in “echo chambers” online, where we only receive information confirming our own opinions, is probably not as great as some people make it out to be,” says Aalberg.

The information most people receive is too varied and comes from too many different channels and sources for that to happen, the researchers believe.

Tips to counteract misinformation

These suggestions are some of the conclusions of the EU research project on populism led by Professor Toril Aalberg at NTNU.

Citizens

  • Use the news media!
  • Be willing to pay for news. Quality costs money.
  • Be aware of your own filters, bubbles and echo chambers.
  • Act responsibly whenever you communicate.

Politicians

  • Stand your ground. Don’t change your point of view with every changing current.
  • Don’t attack the free press.
  • Be careful about claiming that you represent the will of the people.
  • Don’t avoid debates.
  • Be aware that people’s emotions are constantly changing.

Journalists and Media

  • Reflect on your role and be open about it.
  • Use the same standards for populists as for others.
  • Report on populism when democratic standards are violated.
  • Check facts and correct when necessary.
  • Ask about details, grounds and consequences.
  • Be careful with populists in the media, and don’t fall for their provocative strategies.
  • Pay attention to populism from the media itself.
  • Be aware that the public increasingly receives information directly from politicians, and of how the public can build loyalty to their digital “tribe.”
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