Here’s a newsflash: Information warfare and fake news are not new.

“All warfare is based on deception,” declared the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu in The Art of War (written in the 5th century BC). And deception goes back even farther—to Adam and Eve perhaps—which is to say misinformation and influence campaigns didn’t start with the 2016 Presidential Election. What is new (and real by the way) is the dissemination of fake news via our 24-hour news cycle and our nonstop access to it.

As more of our lives migrate online, many believe the use of disinformation as a tool of persuasion and weapon of influence has reached new heights. We have more access to news than ever before—from mainstream news channels to social media to radio and podcasts. And it’s easier than ever to reach us—at any hour of the day or night—on any one of our many Internet-connected devices (think smartphone, tablet, laptop, smartwatch, Alexa, and more).

A recent study by the American Psychological Association 1 found that 66% of Americans are stressed out about the future of the country, and the constant consumption of news was pinpointed as a major contributor. It looks like breaking news is breaking us. And now, with so much misinformation being posted as truth, we are in an even more entrenched era of “headline stress disorder,” a term coined by author and therapist Steven Stosny, PhD in the aftermath of the Trump/Clinton election in 2016. “For many people, continual alerts from news sources, blogs and social media, and alternative facts feel like missile explosions in a siege without end,” says Dr. Stosny in an Op-Ed published in the Washington Post.2 A lot of negative feelings like anxiety, hopelessness, despair, sadness is fueled by being tuned in to the 24-hour news cycle.

Information warfare is as old as warfare itself, and even affected George Washington posthumously. Three days after the Civil War began, on April 15, 1861, an article was published in the New York Herald that roiled the nation. It stated that the body of George Washington had been removed from his tomb, taken to the mountains of Virginia to be interred there. Given the tense political climate of the time, this early form of “click bait” likely spurred the sale of more papers, but also served to increase heightened tensions between the North and South.


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The Changing Landscape of Truth: Social Media’s Slippery Slope

The rise of the Internet and social media has compounded the problem of fake news. The traditional news model— where a small number of outlets staffed by trained journalists who interview credible sources and then fact-check the information prior to publication—has been upended by the current media environment. Today, it’s fairly easy for conspiracy theories and rumors to spread through channels that are multifold, messages that are continuous and an environment that often overlooks contradictory information. We are faced, many times, with paradoxical messages, and it can become easier to cling to a simpler fiction than dissect a more complex reality. Here, some recent examples:

  1. Hillary Clinton ran a secret child pornography ring in the basement of a DC pizza shop (better known as Pizzagate).
  2. Pope Francis endorsed President Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
  3. Former President Barack Obama banned the pledge of allegiance in schools before leaving office.

Right? WRONG. These are just a sampling of three ‘famous’ fake news stories out of hundreds, which were shared millions of times of social media platforms like Facebook and Reddit and have since been debunked.

Since August 2017, 67% of Americans receive at least some of their news via social media, according to research from the Pew Research Center.Spreading false messages to influence what people believe and how they behave—in ways they would not otherwise—like believing that global warming is not real despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, means that we are vulnerable to manipulation in ways that we are just beginning to fully appreciate.

Social media allows you to reach virtually anyone and to play with their minds.”
-Uzi Shaya, former senior Israeli intelligence officer 
                                          

This quote by Uzi Shaya, a former Israeli intelligence officer, appeared in a recent New Yorker article. Shaya continued adding, “You can do whatever you want. You can be whoever you want.” The advent of the Internet opened a new arsenal of tools that can be used for manipulation including online hacking, aliases, bots, unattributed websites filled with fabricated content, social media avatars posting fake news.

Influence is the game, and information warfare is how this new type of war is won. The ability to plant seeds of ideas into people’s minds, have them question the information and attempt to change their minds, is now the seat of power. Unfortunately, regulations have not kept pace with advances in technology, resulting in a Wild West, anything-goes mindset.

These types of persuasion tactics have become big business. Social media, according to security experts P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking in their book LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media has “become a battlefield where information itself is weaponized.”

Facebook Addresses the Problem

LONDON, UK – AUGUST 7th 2018: Facebook fake news advert. Facebook announcement to reduce fake news stories on the social media website

Just look at the role fake news posted on Facebook allegedly had on the 2016 US Presidential Election.5 Since the revelations of how entrenched these influence campaigns were, Facebook has been working to improve its fake news filters, to make it harder for foreign entities to reach and manipulate audiences using Facebook’s advanced ad targeting.

Here are some of the measures Facebook has put into place in response to the problem:

A recent Social Media Today article reported that, “According to Facebook, three independent analysis reports—conducted by researchers from Stanford University/New York University, the University of Michigan, and the French newspaper Le Monde—have all come to the same conclusion: “Facebook’s efforts to limit the spread of fake news are working.” Progress is being made and that’s good news, but major vulnerabilities continue to exist, and false information is still slipping into our social feeds, reaching millions of people.

The Mental Health Impact

Vasilis K. Pozios, MD, a forensic psychiatrist and co-founder of the mental health and media consultancy, Broadcast Thought, is an expert on the impact media can have on our mental wellbeing. In an interview with Psycom he explained the relationship. “Since ‘fake news,’ or false or misleading news is intended to manipulate public opinion, it’s designed to provoke an emotional response from a reader/viewer, it’s often inflammatory in nature and can elicit feelings of anger, suspicion, anxiety, and even depression by distorting our thinking. But don’t just take my word for it…a national poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association [May 2018] reported that Americans across all demographic groups experienced sharp increases in anxiety levels in the past year.”6

And it goes a level deeper: Dr. Pozios shared that “recognizing or perceiving fake news as ‘fake’ can also elicit feelings of anger and frustration, especially if the reader/viewer feels powerless in the face of attempts to manipulate public opinion by way of fake news.”

So, what happens when we encounter fake news? We may be thinking with our “emotional brain” as opposed to our “rational brain.” Becoming aware of what kind of media triggers emotional thinking and learning how to employ rational thinking instead can help. Dr. Pozios recommends evaluating all information that’s presented to us—even when it comes from “trusted” sources. According to Dr. Pozios, “this takes practice (more practice for some than others!), and individual triggers may vary from person to person. But by utilizing this strategy, we can help protect ourselves from fluctuations in mood or other unwanted emotional responses to fake news.”

What You Can Do to Fight Fake News: Expert Tips

Reality is a matter of perception and information shapes reality. To shift reality with false information is destabilizing—and can have serious ramifications on mental health—leading to significant anxiety and more. We live in a highly-connected world, it doesn’t take much to tip over into instability or even chaos. The good news—and this isn’t fake—is there are some steps you can take to protect yourself from the negative impact of fake news.

  • Don’t Believe Everything You Read 
    “The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by questioning we may come upon the truth.” Sage words that were written in 1120 but ring true today from Pierre Abelard, a medieval French philosopher, teacher, and theologian. Serve as your own fact checker. Simple things can help: check the date of the article (just because it comes up at the top of the search results page doesn’t mean it’s the most current information) and the source of the information. Look at the information in the URL. Academic institutions (denoted by a .edu) and the government (.gov) can be among the most reliable places for research, statistics, and factual information. For example, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml   is the link to the National Institute of Mental Health. See the .gov in the URL?
  • Confirm the Information
    Yes, we know that you’re busy, and debunking fake news takes time. So, go to organizations that dedicate themselves to this kind of investigatory work. Their mission: when misinformation obscures the truth, they lift the veil via fact-checking, original investigative reporting, and providing evidence-based analysis with documented sources.  FactCheck.org, Snopes.com, and PolitiFact.com  are some of the most respected. If you read something that you suspect may not be true, it’s likely that one of these organizations has verified the piece—just type the title of the article or a keyword from the article into the search bar to see if it has been reviewed.
  • Check Your Biases
    Yes, we get that this is not easy. According to Dr. Pozios, confirmation bias7 leads us to put more stock in stories that confirm our beliefs and opinions and to discount or reject information that does not. “We have a tendency as humans to accept information we already believe and discount information we already disbelieve. This concept is important to be aware of because it helps us understand how social media can contribute to echo chambers of opinion,” Dr. Pozios explains. So, the next time you’re aghast at some social media post about a politician you oppose, take a moment to pause and question what you’ve read.
  • Keep Your Sense of Humor
    One of the most powerful and positive defense strategies we have is humor. Late-night comedy and political satire won’t change the news but can help reduce the stress and anxiety brought on by it. Laughter is free medicine, so laugh a lot.
  • Channel Strong Feelings
    Turning your feelings of stress into action can help. March in a protest, start a petition and send it to your state and Federal legislators, volunteer for a cause you believe in. Or, run for office.

This new era of fake news is not going away—but we have the power to adapt. Social media stressing you out? Unplug. Is the news too constant and confusing? Turn it off. And who knows, maybe the very technology that contributed to the problem can come to the rescue. It’s too soon to tell, but the National Science Foundation8 is funding research into a program that will enable digital devices to purge fake news. Stay tuned.

 

 

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Last Updated: Oct 16, 2019