How to fight fake news – first thoughts

Fake news influence reported in the Washington Post

I am working on three projects fighting fake news. Here are some common challenges that we face. And some initial thoughts on solutions.

The fake news challenge: Brain hacking

Creating and spreading fake news has become easier in recent years. Virality is a good metaphor for how ideas spread, real or fake.

For fake news to spread it must:

  1. Spread easily.
  2. Spread quickly.
  3. Reach a lot of people. In practice this is either being seeded to a lot of people, spread by media organisations or with paid advertising.

This post focuses on the first point – how to create (or disrupt) effective ideas. The second and third points can largely be achieved by regulation and self-regulation of media and social networks.

Fake news influence reported in the Washington Post
Fake news influence reported in the Washington Post

Why does fake news work?

Fake news works because most of the time the human brain’s emotional side makes decisions unconsciously. The conscious, rational, side simply post-rationalises these decisions.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor is that the conscious brain thinks it’s the Oval office, when in fact it’s the press office.

The brain’s vulnerabilities create many opportunities for fake news. Seven problems that we have seen frequently are listed below, along with possible solutions.


Seven fake news problems and solutions

  1. Speed

First impressions matter. Even people who find out that a fake story isn’t true will often remember the fake story. And it’s really easy to make up stories if you are unethical, compared to reporting the truth. It’s simply faster.


Consider creating a team to spot, evaluate, and react to appropriate stories. This team can try and kill fake news early on. Ideally this is linked to traditional media to reduce amplification of fake news.

Tools such as Zignal may allow early identification of relevant issues so they can be countered early.

Often it’s impossible to be fast enough though. Then inoculation is needed. This means that if people see a fake story, they are less likely to believe it. For instance Barack Obama in 2008 innoculated against accusations of being a Muslim by stressing his Christianity, rather than debunking claims that he was Muslim.


2. Repetition

Familiarity with a message makes it more memorable. This is especially true of people who aren’t expert. Which is most of us, most of the time. So a message that gets repeated becomes familiar, and remembered.


Focus on reducing the reach of fake news, to minimise the number of people who see a message. That means, often, ignoring a potential fight. Something that can be hard on social media.

Avoid repeating our opponent’s messages.


3. Ease

The easier people find it to watch or read a message, the more credible it is. That’s because our brains confuse the two things.

Short words, short sentences, short paragraphs, and memes all increase ease. As do clear fonts, design and rhymes.


Try to create content in the simplest language possible. For instance, I’ve rewritten this blogpost several times to make it more readable. It’s not perfect, but it’s much better than it was when I first wrote it.

Also consider partners like Buzzfeed, who are good at simple explanations of complex issues.


4. Multi-channel

People who see a message in several places, perceive it as more credible. Partly this is because there are more opportunities for you to trust the source.


Monitor across a range of online and offline channels. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube will usually be the key social media channels. But less mainstream sites such as discussion forums, Tumblr and email lists can also be important.


5. Authority cues

If a message looks like it comes from a credible source (e.g. a news channel) then it is perceived as more credible. Unfortunately it’s now easy to photoshop authority.


Ensure content includes authority cues, such as your spokespeople appearing on TV.

Also help the public to spot fake authority cues. Unfortunately it’s easy for fake news promoters like RT to pretend to be real news organisations. But they look like them, with TV studios and other serious news cues.

6. Social proof

If a friend shares a Facebook post you are dramatically more likely to remember the content.


Use social media sharing as a metric to prioritise which fake news to address. And consider who is sharing your content. Is it just your hardcore fans, or are you reaching beyond them?


7. Messenger effects

We are more likely to notice messages from people we know and trust. These might be traditional celebrities or people who have become popular online. Of course this gives power to people who may not be experts.

Endorsements can be faked too, as Martin Lewis has found out recently.


Innoculate celebrities through a programme focused at them. Contact celebrities to discourage them repeat spreading misinformation.


Credit: There’s a lot of good academic research on fake news at the moment. I particularly recommend RAND’s recent report.