How to guard yourself against stupidly succumbing to FAKE NEWS

Fake News can make people go crazy. On Monday I woke up to a number of WhatsApp status updates of friends crying. They were scared. Terrified. The world as we know it had come to an end. Reason? There were these three videos that had gone viral showing how the world has finally come to an end. In one video, there was a planet like earth rotating slowly and seemingly approaching the earth. A second video was of a lizard like snake swimming its way up to the clouds to disappear into the skies. The third video had these angles hovering over a Chinese city proclaiming the end of times. Here is one of the videos.

After watching the status updates I took my time to respond to them with this message, “only idiots get scared with such”. Interestingly they didn’t take offense, but were quick to accept that indeed they behaved “idiotically” except for one Facebook friend who commented, “I would also be scared, people are not the same, so why use the word “idiot”?!”

For those who were interested in knowing why I called them idiots, I pointed out that an event such as those shown in the videos, if they indeed happened, could have attracted all mainstream media globally to provide real time coverage, and the breaking news from that event would supercede the news on coronavirus. “That’s true”, they said. “Have you seen any mainstream media e.g. CNN, Aljazeera, BBC and others covering the event?” I asked. “No”. They responded. “So why didn’t you take a few moments to think through before crying like a little child? “I didn’t cry, I was just scared” one replied. Later, a few of them posted this meme.

fake news

What’s obvious from the above experience and from the experience of the Fake News surrounding coronavirus is the ease with which people stupidly succumb to fake news. Take the news regarding the first case of coronavirus in Kenya. When the CS of Health announced that the virus was detected on a woman who had arrived from US through London, but didn’t give the name or any other personal identification details, Kenyans were quick to buy to the fake news peddled by other Kenyans that the woman in question was a one Jane Chirchir. Jane Chirchir would later make a viral video claiming that she doesn’t have coronavirus – then the many Kenyans who don’t want to take a moment and think concluded that Kenya did not have the virus, arguing that the government had made the announcement to reap part of the $1 billion UN had promised to coronavirus affected countries.

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Later, a one Elijah Muthui Kitonyo who had also claimed that the woman who had come with the virus in Kenya was a one Millicent Musau got himself arrested.

The question therefore is, how can you safeguard yourself against succumbing to fake news?

The quickest answer is simple – just don’t be stupid. There are two types of stupidity here – 1. Laziness which is common among many and 2. Limited cognitive ability which might be impossible to undo.

Stupidity due to laziness in thinking and action contributes a lot to someone’s gullibility to fake news and old school propaganda. Religious and political leaders take advantage of this to sway you emotionally. Sycophancy, euphoria, and populism are born out of this type of stupidity. Characteristics of people who are lazily stupid include making firm conclusion from reading headlines (why bother reading the article), reading only one source of information (if they get to read it) and not having any sense of skepticism.

The first step towards guarding yourself against succumbing to fake news therefore is simply not being lazily stupid. Whenever there is a claim, you should practice to question whether such a claim is believable or not, and if it is believable, you need to find out if the story still has loose ends that would make it not add up. Take the theory that the government announced presence of coronavirus in Kenya so as to mince part of the $1 billion UN fund, if that be true, then the government must be very stupid to slow down the economy by ordering social distancing, closing all learning institutions, and limiting travel and work just in hopes of getting part of the funds. Ability to debunk the conspiracy could have been possible if you had already known how to think economically. In this article, I shared why critical thinking that entails understanding philosophy of logical reasoning,   economics and political science, and that of the scientific method (including history, arts, religion) will come in handy in helping Kenyans stop being stupidly gullible.

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Then there is cognitive stupidity that was researched by Belgium Psychologists who investigated the ease with which people change their minds after learning that the information they had received is fake news. According to the researchers, cognitive stupidity “leaves a person particularly vulnerable to misinformation—one that can be found among people of all races, nationalities, and political parties”.

It is not only those two types of stupidity that we need to recognise and work our way out of in order not to succumb to fake news, but also egocentric stupidity. Egocentric stupidity is that type where an ignorant person assumes to know what in reality he or she doesn’t know. To such people, you can’t tell them anything. They suffer what is known as Dunning-Kruger effect, “a type of cognitive bias in which people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are.” Kendra Cherry in her explanation of the effect puts it this way, “essentially, low ability people do not possess the skills needed to recognize their own incompetence”, which is not only limited to practical skills, but conceptual understanding and possessed information about a subject too.

Philip Fernbach, a cognitive scientist and professor in the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado, Boulder, explained how egocentric stupidity, or rather believing to know what in practice we don’t know, leads people to believe things that aren’t true in this TEDx talk.

From a practical point of view, here is how not to be stupid:

  1. Be a skeptic. That is, don’t believe any claims first hand. Ask questions such as “could that be true?” “If it is true, how can I verify?” “If it is a theory, what can falsify it”? Acquiring the critical thinking skills I mentioned above will help you a lot in your skepticism.
  2. Ask yourself if the claim is verifiable. Is this information verifiable from credible sources? If so, have the credible sources verified it? For example my friends who were scared by the end of the world videos could have just asked themselves if such an event could have passed unnoticed by global mainstream media. Hence, if the mainstream media didn’t notice them, then they are most likely faked a.k.a edited videos.
  3. From 2 above, know credible sources. In this time of coronavirus, it is wise to listen to credible institutions such as the Ministry of Health and credible medical practitioners, not just any self made expert claiming knowledge on the virus. What these self made expert would be spewing are they own opinions mostly formed after reading headlines.
  4. Don’t read headlines. Read the articles, from credible sources, and read more than one source.
  5. Follow these guidelines.
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Odipo Riaga
Managing Editor at KachTech Media
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