Your Brain on News” & what it means for all of us

You probably know someone who forwards things that you feel are fake news, maybe even things that don’t line up with your understanding of the person.

Perhaps you’ve lost friends because of their views on issues, or seen family members turn away from values that they’ve embraced for years. Here’s a story that broke my heart when I read it.

Our brains are biased

Our brains are always trying to keep us safe, even though sometimes it’s not logical. For example, we all have biases built-in, we’re naturally fearful of something that’s new, or different than us in some way. We are biased to something, whether it be something racial, cultural, or even with the news.

But our brains also work to keep us safe by providing a stable reality for us, and that means that it often fills in the gaps in our knowledge to make our world whole, whether it’s true information or not. We all have, or develop, certain belief systems about how the world works, how it is and how it should be. Our brains support this by using techniques like:

Selective Recall

We remember things that support our point of view Confirmation bias – we ignore information that doesn’t support our point of view Being attracted to emotional stories, things that make us react emotionally (because it may be a thread and our brains want us to be prepared for anything) And this last one is the key to fighting disinformation and fake news, see below!

Let’s face it, our brains pay attention to drama. Whether it’s being a ‘rubber necker’ on the road or retweeting a tweet that excites you, our need for drama has always influenced our news, since the dawn of man. This has been proven in lots of studies, like this big one back in 2018.

“It seems to be pretty clear [from our study] that false information outperforms true information,” says Soroush Vosoughi, a data scientist at MIT who has studied fake news since 2013 and who led this study. “And that is not just because of bots. It might have something to do with human nature.

Though that study was mainly about Twitter, it seems obvious to me that the findings are just as applicable to Facebook and other platforms, because it’s more about our brains than it is about these software platforms.

Emotional response to fake news

Importantly, fake news evokes more emotion than true statements.  Our brains are wired to pay attention to threats, especially if they’re stated in a novel way, and to pay attention to negative things as, to our brains, they could potentially develop into a threat against us.

There’s nothing new in how we react to negative things and novel threats, look around for the history of fake news and you’ll see this very clearly. So what’s the key difference? The online instantaneous internet, facilitated by social media and search engines. Social media has just made the existing problems worse, and it’s on all of us to be more aware and take appropriate action.

Misinformation is easy to share

Fake news and disinformation, when wrapped in negative or perceived threats, spread like a virus, and it’s very hard to stop ourselves from sharing it. That’s why we can’t believe anything we get from our social media channels and should take steps to save ourselves from being labeled a fool by forwarding false information. If you’re on social media, then you’ve certainly been exposed to disinformation and fake news, and you may have even forwarded/re-tweeted it!

The good news is that there’s an easy way that we can stop the spread of disinformation. It’s a technique defined in the IRex project, which began in 2015 in Ukraine when Russia was honing its skills on sowing discord and disinformation to the population there.

A simple fix for fake news (if we’d all do it)

It’s very simple,  (from the ‘Label to Disable‘ technique): After reading something you immediately wish to share:

First, pause. Close your eyes or turn your head away from the screen or paper. Then, ask yourself: What am I feeling? Put words to the reaction. Finally, say the label (out loud) that youʼve gave the feeling to yourself. I’m angry! I’m frightened!

If you’re on social media, take 5 seconds and do this before you forward that post or retweet. This technique is simple and allows your brain to reboot its logic circuits. You’ll find that you’re less interested in forwarding that info.

Here’s further info about the larger technique that IREX’s experts recommend:

  • Take responsibility. Recognize that you are the information gatekeeper, it’s up to you not to spread misinformation.
  • Acknowledge what you may not know, remember that you need to be extra careful with content that appeals to you, supports what you already believe, or provokes a strong reaction in you
  • If you have time, check it out, do what you can to verify the information
  • If youʼre still not sure itʼs true, donʼt share it

If the social media companies put a delay on you sharing anything, to give your brain some time to process the thing you reacted to, that would be a great step. But they won’t do it, because it conflicts with their business model, to drive more engagement and sell ads.

There’s actually a course, taught by the folks at Wondrium on this topic. 

Game Time!

If you have a few minutes and want to test your ability to detect fake news, disinformation and propaganda, check out this online game (developed as part of the IRex project) that helps people understand fake news, propaganda, etc. I think it’s nice gamification of this concept, and shows how this is a worldwide issue. We might overwhelm their website so be patient.

The TrueNews Solution

With TrueNews, when you look at a particular fact, you’ll see ALL the evidence supporting or disputing that fact. Unlike other platforms, it won’t support any bias, you’ll be able to see all the evidence available for that fact, allowing you to figure out where you stand by putting your brain to work in supportive ways.

Kirk Sullivan

Kirk Sullivan

Founder of TrueNews