Are You Being Suckered by Fake News? 10 Tips to Avoid Misinformation Fallout

Created: 06 July, 2020
Updated: 14 August, 2022
6 min read

In the information age, the explosion of always-with-you technology has created a voracious hunger for content. The 24-hour news cycle means that cable shows, websites, Twitter feeds, and Facebook updates are always churning out something. Unfortunately, there are unreliable content providers among them who dole out inaccurate, biased content designed to appeal to specific market demographics. It’s become a commercially viable industry to produce “news” that isn’t designed to reliably inform, but rather to entertain and build emotional reactions—to “attract eyeballs,” in industry parlance.

It can be dangerous to rely on this type of information. Access to factual information about current events and society’s trends and challenges is vital: You need a broad understanding of how the world is really working to increase your ability to move through it on your own terms.

The News = Your Connection to the World Around You

The news you digest—and how you educate yourself—are essential to your personal agency. In psychology speak, agency is the ability to act as an effective agent for yourself—thinking, reflecting, making creative choices, and acting in ways that allow you to live life as you see fit. People with high levels of agency are continually learning more, and they’re discerning about their sources in the process.

Actively positioning yourself to learn from a wide range of people and resources will serve to continuously expand your knowledge and capabilities. When it comes to news, people seeking agency must be tough-minded and draw from trustworthy sources.

It’s vital to know the difference between proper news organizations that follow journalistic procedures on the one hand, and organizations and dubious individuals passing off untruths and their ideologies as news on the other. Here are 10 specific ways to avoid misinformation fallout:

Select professional news outlets that employ and value journalism. Many of the best news organizations use fact-checkers: people trained to verify the details that go into an article before it’s published or broadcast. This is similar to the reliability checks surgeons and pilots perform to decrease serious errors, and to the reliability studies researchers conduct to know if their results will hold up over time.

Start with traditional media, such as established newspapers, magazines, and public radio and television. These sources follow established standards of journalism. Many require that you become a subscriber to read more than a handful of articles. This is money well spent. If you immediately reject these news sources because they’re “too liberal,” you’ve just lost agency.

Turn to think tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute, and to consulting organizations, such as Bain. If you immediately reject these sources because you believe they are “too conservative,” you’ve just lost agency.

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Engage in critical thinking. Professional information gatherers value discourse, research, and logic. No matter what ideological end of the spectrum you fall on, you can find reputable sources that will pose important questions you aren’t likely to think of, and that challenge your assumptions.

Take control of the advertising competing for your attention. High-quality news appeals to your brain’s frontal cortex—its executive functions—rather than your limbic system and its emotional reactions. Today, there’s more manipulation than ever, and what you’re seeing, hearing, and reading all try to push up your feelings. Why? Advertising.

The longer you keep watching, the more value you create for a news organization because of the ads that surround your experience. The more emotional you are when those commercials pop in, the more likely you are to conform, follow the herd, and buy the product. Start hitting the mute button when commercials come on the screen, or simply look away. Better yet for your health, take the opportunity to stand and walk around if you can’t fast forward.

Separate entertainment from news. Over the past few decades, this line has blurred. To stay informed, you generally want less flash and more facts. If you’re tuning into cable news, do you notice the newscasters chatting more than reporting verifiable information? Are they trying to play to your emotions by peddling a particular ideology in a hard-sell fashion? Are they giving you room to think for yourself? Are their featured interviewees legitimate experts providing fact-based analysis? Know the difference between news and theater. If you want to be indulged and entertained, Netflix is great.

Beware of deceptive “news.” When you hear people say, “I read it on my Facebook feed,” remind them that Facebook was never intended to be a news organization. It’s a social media company that makes money by selling ad space. It tracks the demographics and online behavior of its users. This allows marketers and companies to target their ads and products most effectively.

During the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, Facebook sold more than $100,000 worth of ads (a figure that is continually being revised upward) to Russian agents tied to the Kremlin. It also allowed Russians to create misleading organic posts that ultimately reached more than 126 million users. Many of these ads and posts were made to look like news, when, in fact, they were a mixture of fact and fiction designed to provoke discord. The purpose was to manipulate the presidential election and undermine American democracy. The threat is real, and all of us must think critically about the source of our information in the digital age.

Pay attention to the source that’s listed before you click. For instance, if you’re looking for medical information, click on pages from the U.S. Mayo Clinic (mayoclinic.org) or the website of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (nih.gov), a government body. Both will provide information that’s factual and without a hidden commercial bias.

When Googling, don’t stop at the first search hit. Check out those below it and on the next pages. Ask yourself: Is the link you are clicking a paid ad, or an organic result? Are the results being influenced by your search history?

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Don’t accept what’s on Wikipedia without verifying the sources. Most Wikipedia entries have at least some accurate information, but because it’s an evolving digital encyclopedia with a reported 12 million edits a month, many entries are bound to be inaccurate and most are bound to be incomplete.

Go the extra step and check the original sources listed at the bottom of the entry. Visit other encyclopedia resources to verify, and watch for social sleights-of-hand that are intended not so much to teach you something, but rather to get you to move in someone else’s direction.

Keeping yourself receptive to new, reputable ideas not only increases your accumulation of knowledge, but it also makes you a better learner by increasing your ability to make sense of new information—while boosting your agency in the process.

PAUL NAPPER, Psy.D., is a leading psychology and leadership consultant. His client list includes Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, universities, and start-ups, and he has held an advanced fellowship during a three-year academic appointment at Harvard Medical School.

ANTHONY RAO, Ph.D., is a cognitive-behavioral therapist. For over 20 years, he was a pediatric psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. In 1998, he opened a specialized private practice. He appears regularly as an expert commentator.

Their new book is "The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms."

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