The Who, What & Why of Fake News


In 1710, Jonathan Swift wrote: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”

3 centuries later, a study by MIT affirms what the writer intuitively concluded. The recent study has found that false news spreads 6 times faster on Twitter than real news, and most of it are spread by people, not Twitter bots.

Misinformation is not a new problem, but technology has enabled it to spread much faster than before. At our recent Halogen Think Tank, we invited a community of educators, as well as experts in the field, to discuss some of the issues surrounding the propagation of fake news.

  1. Who falls for fake news?
  2. What do they fall for? (What do they trust?)
  3. Why do people spread misinformation?denny-muller-534086-unsplash

Who falls for fake news?

On a spectrum of skeptical to gullible, we discussed that youth tended towards the skeptical end of the spectrum, and older adults (Baby Boomers and Gen X) tended towards the gullible end of the spectrum with regards to falling for fake news. This was evident during the controversial 2016 US Elections.

Many of the participants attest that family Whatsapp chats remain their largest source of pseudoscience (a common type of misinformation), with one participant quipping that “Whatsapp aunty tales are the new old wives tales”. The intentions might be good, but the lack of scientific credibility of what is being shared might be a reason why there is a growing skepticism amongst the youth.

While youth may be skeptical, it was found that the skepticism was directed towards mainstream or authoritarian sources of information. There was however higher levels of receptivity towards information and opinions shared amongst peers. It seems that youth gravitate towards opinion, and like to form their own. The concern is whether these opinions are sometimes formed outside of the basis of facts and evidence.

What do they fall for?

In his book “The Trust Economy”, Philipp Diekhöner highlights that trust is attributed to the interface of a website or platform. Everett Rosenfeld, Asia-Pacific Editor of CNBC added that this was true for consumers of mainstream news as well, citing evidence that a large population in the US cannot tell the difference between and because they had similar interfaces whilst featuring very different headlines. The finding is consistent in the world of tech start-ups, where good design and interface trumps substance and content when looking at user adoption and receiving grants/investments. This is not inconsistent with the age old mantra that “first impressions count”.

“Trustable” interfaces can then be purposefully designed to propagate various kinds of misinformation like conspiracies, hoaxes, pseudoscience, political propaganda and the like. It takes a discerning (or skeptical) viewer to be able to filter or question the information being presented.

Why do sources spread misinformation?

This was a sensitive topic that called into the question the professional ethics of journalists and editors, especially those of the mainstream media. The balance between objectivity and chasing the bottom line profits sometimes gets blurred. It is also difficult to have objective reporting when journalist carry their own biases, and sometimes paint events through these biased lenses.

An awareness of these would probably be the key to being able to navigate the large sea of information and filter what is true from what is false. It will serve the reader well to question the motives behind each piece of content that is put out and also question what is not being said.