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Fake news

Forum  /   /  By Rafael A.S.G. Ongpin

The phrase itself reeks of prevarication. “Fake news” is, simply, lies. And yet, the volume and shrillness of fake news, at this time in our history, are threatening to drown out truth and erode consensual reality.

The irony is that it’s really not that difficult to figure out what is real news and what is fake. I think any person who is (at least) not stupid, and who has monitored news media for some length of time, should be able to tell what’s what; you don’t need a doctorate in political science.

Yet, it appears that potentially millions of Filipinos can’t tell real news from fake, and they credulously accept as fact even the most ludicrously false allegations, simply because someone said them, publicly.

There are many factors at play. The main one is, of course, intelligence. Now, this is a very dangerous thing to say, because it sounds like, “If you don’t agree with me, you are stupid.” This is not at all what I mean to say. What I do mean to say is this: it takes intelligence to detect fake news— not much— but if you are truly stupid, you won’t be able to tell which is fake news and which is real.

The basic definition of intelligence is “the ability to understand.” That, in turn, can be broken down into different mental skills, such as awareness of the environment, the ability to recognize patterns, the ability to predict outcomes, the ability to apply the memories of past outcomes to analyze present situations (memory itself is a distinct mental skill), and the ability to abstract, for example, using numbers to describe an economic situation, and the ability to process, classify, and prioritize large amounts of information.

For instance, if you have a poor ability to recognize patterns, you might think that “theguard1an.com” is the website of a respectable UK newspaper. If you have poor awareness of your environment (for example, if you don’t read anything at all), you might think it’s perfectly plausible (as the guard1an website states) that “Duterte attracts more investors as Bill Gates invests $20 billion in the Philippines.”

Again, to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with current events, the news item is obviously fake. Yet, people have told me, to my face, “No, it’s true, I saw the video.”

This brings us to other aspects of fake news that have to do with intelligence. One is intellectual laziness. People simply don’t bother to check. For example, in the Bill Gates story above, it would be a simple matter of a few seconds on the internet to see if anyone else has reported this supposed news. So, if not a single newspaper, news website, TV station, or radio station carried the story, it’s pretty obvious that it’s fake, right? Apparently not, to some people, who not only don’t bother to check for corroboration, they refuse to.

A close enabler of fake news is cognitive bias. This is a thorny issue, because we are all guilty, to some degree, of believing what we want. Even demonstrably smart people are vulnerable to this, because of their skills in pattern recognition and in predicting outcomes, and in logic. In fact, the smarter you are, the easier it is to fit (or select) the facts that support your (foregone) conclusion.

I think the key aspect of intelligence involved here is skepticism, or doubt. If something sounds too good, or too bad, to be true, then you probably should not believe it until it’s proven. But many people simply lack this basic intellectual characteristic. If it fits with what they want to hear, they’ll believe it, regardless of absolutely any information to the contrary.

The aspect of intelligence having to do with processing, classifying, and prioritizing large amounts of information is relevant both in a personal sense and a public sense. We are all, personally and publicly, subjected to massive amounts of information at every moment. The proliferation of social media and communications technology has acted like a fire hose directed at our brains. We now need to be able to handle this information, more than at any other stage in human evolution.

Whenever you receive a piece of information of any kind, your brain needs to decide: do I need to notice this? Assuming I’ve decided to notice it, should I process it, or ignore it? If I process it, I need to decide, is this true or false? Whether true or false, I need to classify how relevant it is, either right now, or in the future. If it’s relevant to me right now, do I need to act or react? Or if it’s not relevant now, should I remember it because it might be relevant in the future? There are so many levels of filters involved.

Some people simply can’t cope with this. Their minds simply do not have the bandwidth or the processing speed. So they rely on other things besides logic to determine which information they will process, and how they will filter it. What results is a very skewed perception of reality.

People are certainly entitled to their opinions. But opinions need to be arguments based on facts, not on lies that sound like facts.

There is a serious war happening in our national culture, and at stake is truth itself. We must fight this war equally seriously; if we lose it, we have lost ourselves.

Illustration by Paul Fabila

 Learn more on how fake news becomes a real danger to society on Asian Dragon’s June-July 2017 issue, available for download from Magzter.

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