May 2, 2017

Stop fake news by calling it out

4 minute read, in Behaviour

I got a chain (e)letter today. It happens. Well meaning people receive a note from someone they know/love/trust with some terrible information in it, followed by a plea to share the information.
And so on.

Ignore it. Move on. Right?

Today, a nagging question wormed its way into my brain. How does this happen? 

Followed by What role am I playing in this? And What could I possibly to do stop this?

I mean, I get why people make shit up–ignorance, stupidity, hate, humour (the list goes on)–I was more wondering how an extreme meme could continue to survive for 10 years. Hoaxbusters, the research based fact-checking website (running since 1999) closed shop this year, but offers this insight from their tenure:

The tenor of hoaxes has changed through the years. These days, it’s all about conspiracy theories and political misinformation. Those types of hoaxes are spread by folks whose only interest is in reading news that conforms to their point of view. No matter the actual facts, people will believe what they want to, and truth is irrelevant. Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online. He explained that institutional distrust is so high, and cognitive bias so strong, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.  

I get it, forwarding an email is an easy way to support/promote something that matters to you. Even if the story isn’t true, it brings the subject matter to mind. Which is a good thing, right?

Well, let’s do a couple more mental acrobatics on that strategy. Is getting the thing that matters to you some attention helping the cause if it’s brought up in a fake news context?

If so, where does this end? More people making up stories that surface their issues?

It wouldn’t be long before no one would know what to listen to and we’d all start tuning out. It sounds like a Dr. Seus plot, but the only people who benefit from this scenario are the ones who don’t want anyone knowing the facts. People who benefit from us tuning out.

I’d argue that important things to remember/know/understand are more vulnerable in this scenario. This line of thinking doesn’t ultimately support/promote things that matter. It undermines them.

What role am I playing in ignoring this? 

We’re busy. We get that not everyone understands the internet. We wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Especially someone who likes us enough to send over what they think is important information.

As I thought about it, I realized that innocuous as they seem, ignoring these well-intended missives amounted to a kind of tacit support–at least a submission to the idea that massive misinformation is an unavoidable facet of our electronic era. Where once the spread of misinformation might have been retarded by the need to write or type your chain letter, lick the envelopes and pay for stamps, today the flood gates are open.

And it’s not just email. Over the last ten years, most of us have chosen Facebook as the best place to be tricked into propagating fake news that supports our biases.

In the aggregate, these bytes of misinformation are Trojan mice that our journalism institutions compete with, polarise political positions, and generally make people scared to let their kids play outside.

So, here’s what I did:

  1. I went to and looked up the hoax.
  2. Copied a link to the facts.
  3. Pasted the link into a BCC email to all 102 people who had been CC’d on the chain so far (in an effort to stop its spread).

The note said:
This is false. I wish chains containing the truth travelled as quickly as the ones fomenting fear/hate/lies. Since they don’t, I’m taking 2 minutes out of my life to make a public service announcement.

In case you didn’t grow up in an era that used email in your office, please:

  1. Try to avoid sending chain letters (we get enough email as it is without our friends and families spamming us)
  2. Take the 20 seconds to google things that sound outrageous/extreme (certainly check out
  3. When you want to email many people, consider BCC’ing rather than CC’ing. Not everyone wants to have their email address shared publicly, lest they end up on chain letters 😉 hoax was here) hoax was here)

I got back a couple of notes from people who thought I was being harsh to the sender. Though that wasn’t the intention, it’s possible–I was in a hurry. We have a lot of informing to catch up on.




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