Fake news is contagious

Fake news is contagious

May 26, 2017

Fake news is contagious

It is known as fake news: information, sometimes even published or repeated by well-respected news outlets, which rapidly goes viral after being shared on social media. It is seen as the scourge of the modern information age given its propensity to change opinions, shape views and alter individuals’ behaviour. And the world of environmental sustainability has not been spared.

The sectors of food and sustainable agriculture are not immune to the phenomenon of fake news, which is often exploited by interest groups for political purposes. The topics of climate change, agricultural production and the interests at stake in the sector have all been pervaded by fake news. For instance, some stories claim that the consumption of pesticides in developed countries has increased exponentially over the last twenty years. This is not true, it has actually significantly decreased. A report by Legambiente produced in 2010 shows that over the last two decades, the consumption of pesticides has fallen by 32%, from 140,000 tonnes to 95,000 tonnes. This is the consequence of a more “scientific” approach to agriculture and the introduction of species which are more resistant to parasites. When it comes to fake news, the more socially controversial the issue, the more attention it gets: GM crops, climate change, refined foods, and carcinogenic foods (ranging from meat to palm oil) are all areas which are subject to a constant flow of fake news because what is at stake is not just scientific, but social and political as well. 


Impossible to stamp out

Some fake news becomes so ingrained in the media because it is repeated so often that even supposedly reliable websites end up reporting it. This is the common aim of a lot of fake news which takes root, making it difficult for the casual reader to know whether to believe it or not. This has been highlighted by Italian researcher Walter Quattrociocchi, Director of the Computational Science Laboratory at the IMT School for Advanced Studies in Lucca, who analysed the phenomenon using data analysis. His studies contributed to the Global Risk Report produced by the World Economic Forum.

In a 2015 study published in the scientific journal PlosOne, Quattrociocchi examined the phenomena of echo chambers. He explains that, “before the internet, information came from newspapers and television, and could only be shared among your own social circle. Now there is an abundance of sources, and anyone is free not only to write a news story on the web, on a blog or social media, but can also share it with a much larger circle of people than in the past, who in turn continue to pass it on, until it goes viral. Also, unlike the traditional media which has a system of internal checks, however imperfect, the web does not have any way of verifying the reliability of sources before they are published”. 

Living in a bubble

How do we not realise that what we are sharing is untrue, even when there are facts already available on the web which can disprove it?

The answer lies in these so-called echo chambers – isolated spaces on the web where news is only shared among people who already have the same opinion and simply seek to confirm the views they hold. “It is the most prevalent form of what is known as confirmation bias, a mental process, studied in depth by Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, leading us to instinctively gravitate towards sources which confirm what we already believe”, explains Quattrociocchi. He has used a mathematical approach to study the internal dynamics of these echo chambers, especially when it comes to conspiracy theories – fake news which is spread by people who are convinced that certain events are controlled by secret groups of powerful individuals. “Conspiracy theories tend to come as a package. Once you start to believe in one, you are likely to believe in all of the others: our study clearly highlighted this fact by tracking the patterns of users’ ‘likes’ underneath posts on social media”. 


One of the reasons why fake news stories, and conspiracy theories in particular, are so powerful is their ability to simplify complex issues: environmental sustainability, the use of new biotechnologies and their impact on the environment and people’s health, are just a few examples of the extremely widespread topics discussed in echo chambers. They are difficult ideas to grasp because they are complex from a scientific, social and economic viewpoint, involving technical expertise and intricate value systems. Hence why it is much easier to believe in a piece of fake news pointing to a single culprit for an event which is actually the result of a long string of complex causes.

If you believe the lies, you pass them on

In another study published on Computers in Human Behavior  Quattrociocchi and his collaborators investigated the behaviour of 2,300,000 Italians on Facebook over the period of political elections, demonstrating that those people who tend to follow information threads full of fake news are also more likely to believe fake news with much greater conviction, and then share it. Also, in a study of 1,200,000 Facebook users, the researchers at IMT in Lucca sought to understand where fake news in the field of science ends up, discovering that some topics (such as science and the environment) attract readers with a strong tendency to believe conspiracies, who are then likely to share and comment on fake news always and only within the same sector. The expert explains that releasing true news stories into the system does not help to combat fake news: “In a study in 2014 we found that the more the person who believes in a conspiracy theory or a piece of fake news is exposed to articles debunking such myths, the more embedded their convictions become and the more they share the factual article within their own echo chamber, where everyone else makes negative comments on it, thus consolidating the original bias”. So, as things stand, nobody has yet found the solution to preventing the spread of fake news, because the studies carried out by media experts show that fake and factual news inhabit different spheres in the world of communication. Individuals can make a difference if they are aware that their behaviour is leading to the formation of their own echo chamber. Listening to views which go against your own pre-existing opinions can help you to discover new ways of looking at a problem, especially in the field of environmental sustainability. This is why the BCFN has promoted the Food Sustainability Media Award, aimed at journalists, video-makers and photographers who tell the story of environmental sustainability using data and facts with engaging and high-quality language and images: another tool for reaching those who are not yet aware of the importance of this issue.

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