Keeping a clear head: your best antidote to the post-truth world

Two legislative initiatives designed to combat fake news were introduced simultaneously in France and Russia at the end of 2018. These measures reflect the wave of panic sweeping across society as we witness the decline of scientific and factual truth under the onslaught of alternative facts, conspiracy theories, and other forms of fake news. Whether in the public, political, or economic arena, nowhere is safe from the threat of these post-truths. How did we get here and how can we say enough is enough?

“Post-truth” was Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016, when it was defined as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal be-lief.” It’s a portmanteau word that comes in a range of shapes and sizes, including old favorites such as deliberate omission and straightforward lies, together with a handful of newcomers, especially fake news and alternative facts. In the space of a few years, post-truth has become an undeniable star, spawning reams of scholarly publications, innumerable political and press commentaries, several legislative initiatives, and general consternation. How did we get here and how can we say enough is enough?

Our biases grease the wheels of fake news

Lying is a metaphorical pas de deux: it involves not just “transmitters” but also “receivers.” If the latter are not receptive to the message sent their way, then liars are wasting their time. But our power of discernment is often handicapped by a mountain of cognitive biases, which hark back to a time when humans had to be able to evaluate a situation quickly if they wanted to survive. Some of these biases are particularly damaging when it comes to distinguishing between what is true and what is false. In particular the negativity bias, which is our tendency to grant more weight to negative experiences than positive ones, explains why bad false news is much more successful than good true news. Confirmation bias means we only look for and take into account information that supports our beliefs, ignoring or dis-crediting evidence that contradicts what we already think. There are other distortions of the truth that are not so well known, such as the halo effect: the selective interpretation and perception of information that lines up with our initial impressions. Then there is false-consensus bias and anchoring bias, the latter referring to the difficulty in abandoning our first impressions. We must also factor in the formidable Dunning-Kruger effect, or when overconfidence leads people with limited expertise in a particular fi eld to overestimate their abilities. When these cognitive biases are combined, they impair our alertness and reduce our ability to assess the information before us. The impact is amplified when our brain feels that it has to react urgently, which is when social networks come into the picture.

The context and technology that (also) grease the wheels of fake news

 

Excerpt from Business Digest N°295, April 2019

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