"A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." 

That quote is most commonly attributed to Mark Twain. But in reality, it's pretty hard to verify who said it first--which only illustrates the point.

But as recent events have shown, the sentiment is truer than ever. With the onset of social media, false stories now spread at lightning speed, reaching unprecedented numbers of people in record time.

Case in point, an unprecedented study released earlier this year. The massive research project analyzed every controversial news story in English on Twitter over the course of 10 years--126,000 stories that were tweeted by 3 million users. 

The result? Fake news dominated. 

  • Controlling for many factors, false news was 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth
  • Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories
  • The effects were most pronounced for false political news than for news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information

So, why do people love spreading false stories?

Simply put, because they play on our emotions.

"People thrive on novelty," write the authors of the study. "Novelty attracts human attention, contributes to productive decision making, and encourages information-sharing...When information is novel, it is not only surprising, but also more valuable--both from an information theory perspective (it provides the greatest aid to decision-making), and from a social perspective (it conveys social status that one is 'in the know,' or has access to unique 'inside' information)."

In other words, we spread new information because we get excited about it, and we think it makes us look smart.

But that's not all. When we read a story or watch a video that reinforces our own strong emotions, we're often motivated to share that video through social media or other channels. The more people share, the more believable the story becomes. 

The result is an environment where more and more people are striving to manipulate your emotions. Individuals or special-interest groups often contribute to a false or biased narrative, either to spread their personal ideology or to benefit financially. 

So, what can you do to make sure you're not contributing to the problem?

Emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and manage your emotions and the emotions of others, can help.

In my new book, EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence, I share the expert advice found in The Breaking News Consumer's Handbook (originally published by On the Media, the award-winning investigative reporting program). I used this advice to help me devise five questions that can help you avoid falling victim to fake news.

Rather than immediately believing or sharing a story, image, or video, first consider the following:

1. What's the source? 

If a source is anonymous, it can be difficult to determine the truth of what is presented. Information that's presented on record and that's traceable is typically more reliable. 

"Also be wary of organizations that blindly quote other organizations without solid sourcing," says Ian Fisher, assistant managing editor for digital operations at the New York Times. "They aren't taking a very big chance in doing that. They can always say 'Oh, that was them, not us.'" 

2. What's the context? 

Even if you read a direct quote or see (or hear) a person speaking or taking action, it can be difficult to understand a situation without knowing the context. What is the overall point the person is trying to make? What extenuating circumstances may have contributed to what you saw or heard? 

These questions may help you better understand a situation before commenting on it. 

3. How sensational is it? 

If a story seems unbelievable, there's a high probability that it is.

Further, it's important to gauge the degree of bias from any third-party reporting. Does the narrative only provide one side of the story? Is it extreme in its attempt to praise or discredit others? Who would benefit from the story if it spread? Might the source have ulterior motives? 

4. How are other sources reporting the story? 

"If a news organization says 'we can confirm that such and such has happened,' pay attention to what the other networks are saying," says Andy Carvin, senior strategist on NPR's Digital Desk. "Because ideally you can triangulate that information and get to some nugget of truth. But the fewer examples you have of entities claiming that something has happened, the more wary you should be about it." 

5. Do I really need to share this? 

By asking yourself the right question, at the right moment, you can achieve greater emotional balance. 

I learned one trick from an unlikely source: Comedian and television host Craig Ferguson. Years ago, Ferguson gave the following advice in an interview: 

There are three things you must always ask yourself before you say anything: 

  • Does this need to be said?
  • Does this need to be said by me?
  • Does this need to be said by me, now? 

With enough practice, it only takes a few moments to go through this mental dialogue. But doing so now can prevent you from spreading false information--and help you avoid the need to retract or delete later.

Rampant falsehoods will continue to spread--and social media has only intensified the problem. But by using the questions above, you can have the presence of mind needed to make sure you're not being duped, or duping others--and ensure you're making emotions work for you, instead of against you.

Published on: Jul 26, 2018
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