KZN clinical psychologist breaks down the science behind fake news
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DURBAN - KWAZULU-NATAL clinical psychologist, Kiara Sunder, has given insight into the science of fake news.
She said while many individuals are naively unaware that they are sharing misinformation, there are also those who do it knowingly as a means of satisfying underlying social needs or political agendas.
Sunder said the motives are multi-layered and can be complex to unpack however, there is a common factor that leads to fake news doing harm and that is a strong societal trust in online sources.
Fake news has spiked in recent months in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
She said historically, people have consumed news via print or broadcast channels.
"Yet now, in a relatively short space of time, obtaining news online on social media platforms and communication apps from various, often unofficial, sources including from individuals has become the norm for many people," she said.
She added that the internet has given a voice to everyone and anyone and while it has its benefits, a lot of information is shared without being checked.
Sunder said younger generations are familiar with technology and are able to detect real news from fake news.
"Conversely, older individuals who have had to learn technology later in life tend to be more trusting. There are many internet users who mistakenly believe that anything published online must be true. The same goes for information received in a text message or voice note via a trusted contact,” she said.
Sunder said some share fake news in order to be relevant and first to share. People with anxiety and mental health conditions use social media as an escape and this can lead to people engaging in content that is baseless without them even realising it.
"Other reasons are expression where they find a sense of validation in being able to share a post or message that reflects their own feelings or fears, even if the information shared may not necessarily be true. There is also group mentality where people need to feel that they are not alone and connecting via social media and communication apps can be harmful when misinformation, which speaks to the common fears of groups of people who already feel nervous or threatened, is spread thereby fuelling panic and confusion," Sunder said.
She explained that people also share fake or unverified news as a means to feel validated.
There are those who knowingly share fake news because of a political or psychological agenda.
"These sharers will create fake news to achieve such ends. They crave attention and drama. Narcissistic personalities may share news, fake or true, that puts the spotlight on them regardless of the consequences it may have to others.
Sunder said others share for financial gain.
"Criminals targeting vulnerable individuals are known to use fake news as a tool to spread the word about sought after opportunities, for example through fictitious job or training advertisements and other similar scams, whereby unsuspecting individuals are asked to pay some kind of administrative or activation fee with the promise of earnings or other financial rewards in return," she said.
She said without healthy coping mechanisms in real life, people are more likely to lash out at others or latch onto harmful online trends. Whether intentional or not, such behaviour can result in online bullying, reputational damage and financial loss as well as physical violence, not to mention confusion and disruption.
Sunder said understanding the impact of consuming and sharing unverified information is an important part of conversations between parents or guardians and children when it comes to screen time. As well as online predators and bullies, children need to be made aware of the dangers of fake news.
"As a parent there is great value in keeping communication lines open and emphasising that you trust your child, but not the online world. Helping children to understand the layers of societal dangers involved and letting them feel they can talk openly to you, before expressing themselves online, will go a long way to protecting them now and in the future," Sunder said.