How to avoid falling for fake news in age of cleverly woven disinformation

Saturday February 4 2017

America's President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, DC on January 31, 2017. PHOTO | NICHOLAS KAMM | AFP

America's President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, DC on January 31, 2017. PHOTO | NICHOLAS KAMM | AFP 

By MURITHI MUTIGA
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Did Donald Trump really threaten to jail Raila Odinga if he triggers unrest after the next presidential election?

Was Mwangi Kiunjuri arrested in Addis Ababa while trying to bribe delegates to back Amina Mohamed’s bid for the chairmanship of the African Union Commission?

Have prosecutors in New York threatened to go after a “Mombasa-based politician and his businessman brother” following the recent arrest of suspected drug barons at the Coast?

And did Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe utter these words about Kenyans? “Those people of East Africa shock me with their wizardry in stealing. Sometimes I tend to believe that stealing is in every Kenyan’s blood.”

And: “God Should never have created those thieves (Kenyans) here in Africa. I urge you my people to be on high alert in case you, by bad luck, happen to visit that East African nation. They might infect you with that disease and we don’t want it here.”

All these statements are, of course, utterly untrue. But they are examples of the phenomenon of “fake news” which has caused a lot of head-scratching in democracies around the world and which promises to play a big role in the upcoming presidential election in Kenya.

Fake news simply means stories which are entirely false but which the authors weave in such a way that they seem plausible, therefore attracting wide attention.

During the US election campaign, some youngsters made hundreds of thousands of dollars by cooking up such tales which were shared millions of times online, bringing in a lot of advertising income.

HAD ENDORSED

One of the most popular claimed, falsely, that the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump. Another one asserted that Trump had told friends he would run on a Republican party ticket because “they are the most dumb voters” and they could be counted on to back his bid.

The majority of the fake news items were aimed at attacking Hillary Clinton. One of these claimed that Hillary was grooming children as sex slaves at a pizza restaurant in Washington owned by one of her donors, where she allowed powerful allies to pleasure themselves.

The story sounds totally absurd but then readers see things differently. After the child sex slaves story appeared online, Edgar M. Welch, a father of two, left his home with a loaded gun in the first week of December and fired into the restaurant.

Fortunately, no one was hurt and Welch was arrested before he could inflict wounds on customers or staff.

Why do we believe fake news? Simply because we all harbour deep, often unconscious biases and are eager to believe news items which appear to reinforce our pre-existing beliefs.

“Partisan tribalism makes people more inclined to seek out and believe stories that justify their pre-existing partisan biases, whether or not they are true,” wrote the lawyer Amanda Taub, in TheNew York Times.

CHECK SOURCE

How can you avoid falling for fake news? First, check the source. A lot of fake news sites in Kenya simply amend the address line that major news sites use. A story from the www.nation.co.ke site will likely originate from the Nation and is unlikely to be deliberately designed to dupe readers. However, one from something like www.nationnewspapers2.com simply seeks to ride on the name of the paper to score hits and is not run by the Nation. Other media houses have also suffered variations of this phenomenon. The National Public Radio in the US published a guide on this subject which advises people to also check out the quotes in a story. Most quotes from prominent people can easily be checked to see whether they were reported by reputable media houses or, in the case of prominent figures such as presidents Obama or Trump, whether they appear on the White House website archive. If there are no quotes, that should point to the story being suspicious.

The most important factor behind the spread of fake news, though, is the desire by readers to have their beliefs reinforced. Numerous studies have shown that a person that believes left-handed people are more creative, even when presented with information that both supports and contradicts that belief, will ignore contrary views and believe ever more strongly in pre-existing notions.

In short, fake news thrives because readers are eager to hear the worst about people they don’t like and great things about those they support. The weakest link is the readers’ bias. Fake news would die off if people were willing to be more open-minded and less deeply partisan and attached to their political positions. That, of course, won’t happen. So the tide of disinformation is, unfortunately, here to stay.

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@mutigam