There’s a great piece of research by Laurie Santos from Yale showing that monkeys make the same mistakes we do when it comes to irrational decision making. If these biases are so deep in our DNA that they can be seen in monkeys, how can we hope to rise above them? Our tribal nature also means that we naturally form “teams”, and once we identify with one, it becomes very easy for us to dislike and disregard anything the other side says.
Major news organizations have always put “spin” on news, even when reporting simple facts. E.g., “stubborn” and “determined” mean the same thing, but carry very different emotional undercurrents. We saw this very recently with “terrorist, extremist, militant, local youth, freedom fighter” (the last is from the Pakistani Tribune) when taking about the Pulwama attack. However, what we are seeing now is far more blatant: direct lies designed to manipulate our emotions, and targeted towards us through our social networks.
Here are some rules that might help:
- If it comes to you via a WhatsApp or Facebook group, you should disbelieve it by default. Fact check the news through some reputable source (Reuters, PTI, some big newspaper, etc.) before believing anything. Also, when you are searching on Google, look for both sides: If you search for “earth is flat”, then also search for “earth is not flat” or “flat earth hoax”.
- Don’t just read the headline! Read the entire article and check the quotes. Don’t trust news that comes from random websites unless corroborated by some reputable news source or fact checking website. Hint: If the news makes you feel strongly about something — especially if it confirms something you already thought (“I knew it!”), double check!
- Diversify your news readership by reading articles from various sides. If some piece of news is only available on one website/source, don’t share it.
- This applies to making friends as well: If all your friends are supporters of a single party, you are easy prey for propaganda.
- Memes and videos explaining something are for fun, not news. Don’t share a meme or video which “educates” people about something unless you have looked up (as discussed in #1) carefully.
- Don’t post things immediately unless you are absolutely definite about the news. Wait a day – the world won’t end.
- Look at your Facebook feed — if you’re posting lots of things from non-reputable or one-sided (e.g., National Herald) sources, you should stand back and stop posting for some time.
(Debayan recently moved back to India and currently teaches at the Ashoka University near Delhi. Prior to this, he taught at MIT for a number of years. He holds a Ph.D in Computer Science from Yale, specializing in computer security, cryptography, and privacy.)