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Yes, debunking fake news is hard: here's what you can do about it

There are things you can do to fight against fake news.
There are things you can do to fight against fake news. Photo: / AFSC

Fake news has been a hot topic this year, so much so that Politifact wrote an in-depth article discussing it and “post-truth” was chosen as the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year.

It’s not hard to understand why fake news is so popular: outrageous stories garner a lot of online traffic, after all, and there is much money to be made from the process. But some of us may be left wondering why so many people, even after being presented with the facts, continue to believe thoroughly debunked lies.

Here are three things that allow fake news to spread.

Lack of trust. Trust in the mainstream media has fallen hard since the 1990s: according to Gallup, only 40 percent of Americans had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the media in 2015, compared to about 53 percent in 1997, and this number is even lower for adults under 50 and for non-Democrats. This distrust makes it harder for the media to do its job and inform us of what’s actually going on in the world.

Confirmation bias. We as human beings are very good at seeking out information that confirms our views and ignoring anything that doesn’t fit. While this may be more emotionally comfortable, this often leads to highly implausible stories being propagated and eventually accepted as truth, just because they fit with someone's preconceived notions of what's true and what's not.

Repetition. While our intentions may be good when we share that fake news post in order to give it a good lambasting, research shows that spreading the lie only makes it stronger. Those who are more prone to believing in conspiracy theories or exaggerated stories are unlikely to change their views, even in the light of contradictory evidence, and sharing the fake article itself only encourages the creators to make more.

So what can we do?

Get the right person to do the fact-checking and debunking. People are more likely to believe fact-checking if it’s a person that they respect doing so. Look up the newscasters, politicians, or pundits that your friends and loved ones listen to regularly and see if they have renounced the issue you’re arguing over. Consider writing to or calling representatives and asking them to stand up for the truth and call out lies when they see them.

Encourage new stories with positive frames. Instead of myth-busting, start new conversations coming from a place of shared values. For example, share stories that humanize immigrants and refugees, emphasize kindness and nonviolent solutions to conflict, and insist on the fair treatment and dignity of every human being.

And finally, check out these resources from AFSC and The Opportunity Agenda on how to do more than just myth-bust.

What has your experience been with fake news? How do you approach these types of conversations with your friends and loved ones? Tell us about your strategies in the comments.

About the Author

Ritch Yaure is a Communications Research Intern at AFSC.