Media headlines reporting research results often distort findings — substituting ‘newsworthiness’ for accuracy. The newsworthiness falls into two broad categories: “Whatever you thought you knew about this subject is completely wrong” or “research confirms what we knew to be right all along”. So, when a headline on BBC World this week announced that “a rising tide of nationalism in India is driving ordinary citizens to spread fake news”, we should wonder which of the two newsworthy categories it falls into.
Unless you’ve been blissfully living under a rock somewhere without internet, the BBC’s principal claims aren’t too surprising: A lot of fake news that is circulated seeks to promote pride in national identity; Right-wing networks are better organised to push such narratives; and finally, there is “overlap of fake news sources on Twitter and support networks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi”.
Now, your decision to believe and forward a particular tweet, image or text message depends on four things: What you believe must be true (conditioning and bias); what you’ve said about it in the past (history); what others in your groups are saying (social proof); and what someone you respect says (authority). Your “fast brain” processes all of this in less than a second, and your fingers do the forwarding immediately after. You don’t look for evidence, you don’t look for counter-claims, and very often, you don’t even reflect on what you’ve read and forwarded. In fact, you don’t use the “slow brain” at all, because you’ve scrolled down and moved on to the next message. Don’t feel bad. You are not alone. Most of us are like that.