One of the unpaid and unappreciated positions that I have is that of the person who counters misinformation that comes to my extended family through Whatsapp groups (and previously through mailing lists). I have been doing this for over 15 years with limited, but not-negligible success. This article attempts to coherently put together my knowledge in these areas so that it may help someone deal with the overabundance of misinformation that they receive.
The article begins with a description of the types of viral messages in an idiosyncratic taxonomy. Then it explains why it actually matters that you are well-informed. The characteristics of messages that push a recipient to forward them are then described. A thought experiment then suggests why falsehood is much harder to challenge than truth. The article provides steps that you can take to protect yourself and the groups where you send and receive messages. The article ends with credible references that you can use to check many of the points described within.
What sorts of viral messages are there?
I do not attempt to be comprehensive in this taxonomy of viral messages as my intention with this article is to explain fake news. Not all viral messages are cause for concern.
Memes and humour
We have all seen a joke or a meme we have felt would make someone laugh and have probably forwarded a bunch of these at some point or the other. These are sometimes annoying but mostly harmless, except when they combine with one or both of the below.
There may be political or commercial interests that benefit the spread of certain kinds of information in society. E.g. it suited Donald Trump’s political allies (and Hillary Clinton’s enemies) to say in 2016 that she was running a child sex-trafficking ring from the basement of a pizza parlour (“Pizzagate”). It suited (and still suits) the oil industry to tell the public that there is uncertainty regarding whether climate change is caused by humans, i.e. impacted by human usage of carbon-based fuels, which is their product.
The motivations of those who originate conspiracy theories are relatively straightforward to understand. Conspiracy theories that spread through the internet are relatively new, muddying the field once occupied by chain letters. Chain letters have been around in the snail-mail format for a while, either as part of pyramid schemes or as time-wasting hoaxes and urban legends. My grandmother told me that she had once received a letter as a young girl promising her bad luck if she did not forward it to ten other people.
Chain letters came to the internet in the email era, before internet messaging became a thing. Recipients were told a story and asked to forward it to others. Information security firms have identified various reasons scammers may want to do this, e.g. financial scams, email address harvesting, phishing attacks, etc. These have now morphed into their current forms, spreading through messaging apps and social media. Chain letters that manipulatively spread positivity are also now in existence, via both email and social media. Who hasn’t come across a message that ends with “…most people who read this message won’t share it…” followed by a “request” to share the message if you care (e.g. to spread mental health awareness, to tell their friends they are doing good, etc.)?
Combining the above
The latest and the best in chain letters combine the tried and true techniques of old with the technological innovations and media of the present day. Conspiracy theories piggyback on chain letter concepts to reach their audiences, pummell them with scary information and persuade them to act in specific manners, e.g. vote for people who talk loudly about the problems that scare them. Conspiracy theorists will circulate memes and humour within their own groups that divide them from their opposition, who will circulate their own memes.
Why do these matter to you?
It matters if people are being misinformed and make life-impacting decisions based on this misinformation. This should be obvious.
In case that was insufficient, let me introduce another: the breakdown of family relationships. There are plenty of stories in the past few years from the United States about family members not talking to each other because some accepted conspiracy theories pushed by extremist fringes of the political party that they supported. The theories, the consequent political positions and the obsessive nature of the beliefs were so unbearable that ultimately one or the other decided that they no longer wanted the relationship. In Germany, I heard stories from some parents who decided that their kids could not visit their grandparents for Christmas because the grandparents accepted vaccine misinformation and refused to get vaccinated during the biggest pandemic of our lifetimes.
In India, right-wing Hindus have come up with the concept of “Love Jihad”, i.e. the idea that Muslim men are reducing the Hindu population by marrying Hindu women and converting their wives to their religion. While people of all religions do convert to others for various reasons, often due to their marriage, the idea that the more than 1 billion-strong Hindu population of India could be weakened by a handful of conversions to Islam is laughable. This dressed-up communalism is now isolating Muslims from their neighbours in a land that they have called their own for hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years.
These are not isolated matters. Savvy political operators in your country and constituency are learning from the playbooks of those who have successfully weaponised misinformation and hatred previously and will, at some point, have a go at you. And then, when you see the gulf widen between your parents, children, neighbours and friends, you may wonder if you can save your relationships – or worse, whether those relationships are worth saving.
Why do recipients spread these messages?
Conspiracy messages resonate with people who already have certain compatible beliefs. A person who distrusts one party in government may be easily convinced that they are up to something nefarious. A person who is anti-US on account of the many wars and foreign-policy blunders of that country is more likely to accept Russian or Chinese propaganda about the USA. A person who generally avoids medicines may be convinced that medicines and vaccines are a scam. Complicating the matter is the fact that there are true conspiracies (i.e. activities conducted by a group of people colluding in secret to produce an outcome), so we cannot discount every conspiracy as falsehood upon merely identifying it as a conspiracy. For example, 9/11 was indeed a conspiracy by Al-Qaeda operatives to conduct a terrorist attack on the USA. A doctor providing Hepatitis B vaccinations was used as a cover by the CIA to locate Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan; this was a disastrous decision that led to distrust in legitimate vaccination programmes and resulted in the re-emergence of polio in Pakistan.
Once a person finds the message’s contents worth sharing with their contacts, it gets shared. But the substance of the text is not the only thing that provokes the recipient into sharing. Messages that get forwarded have some of the following characteristics. They:
- exhort the recipient to forward the message,
- use attention-grabbing language or exclamation marks,
- are alarmist,
- provide an urgency to take action (by requiring an activity within a deadline),
- state or suggest that a mainstream narrative is false,
- suggest financial rewards,
- make a strong emotional appeal to the recipient,
- suggest benefits to the recipient, to the person who receives it from them or to the subject of the letter (e.g. “Bill Gates will pay $1 to this child’s treatment fund for every forwarded message”),
- suggest negative consequences to the recipient, their loved ones or to the subject of the message if not forwarded,
- state or imply that a good person would forward the message.
This list is not comprehensive. As you can see, it is challenging to find a unified and consistent set of criteria that explains all types of fake forwards.
The first criterion, the exhortation to forward, is the most important for fake news messages. In itself, this is not a bad thing. If I share one of my articles to a friend, I may ask them to forward it to others if they like it. However, the remaining criteria (urgency, alarmism, incentives, implied judgement, etc.) implicitly strengthen the first criterion by causing the recipient to (seemingly of their own judgement) think that they just have to share it with others.
The asymmetry of falsehood and truth
Imagine that A tells B that you stole from your company. B now looks at you differently but doesn’t say anything. B may no longer want to work with you. You cannot even do anything to defend yourself before the matter is made explicit. Once someone actually says it out loud, you can take A to court for libel. After many months, you win the case and A is forced to apologise. However, now you are the person who won the libel case for being called a thief. This becomes a part of your identity.
This is how hard it is to combat a single slur on one’s character, even if it is not justified. If the burden of proof falls on someone other than the person who makes the claim, the falsehood gains a foothold in the minds of people.
Now imagine a complex and emotional situation such as a deadly global pandemic. Scientists, policymakers and businesspeople work in an environment of uncertainty, where new knowledge is gained on a daily basis and peoples’ immediate survival as well as their livelihoods are at stake. If a single unsubstantiated lie can have an impact, what could a concerted effort to spread conspiracy do? Various political interests have spent their energies characterising the pandemic as a means by governments to control populations, as money-making schemes by drug manufacturers, etc. It is complicated by the fact that drug manufacturers have legitimately made huge profits from the pandemic by creating and distributing life-saving drugs (after over 40 years of development in MRNA technology), but worse is the problem that certain governments have benefited from the pandemic to put an end to anti-government protests (e.g. the Hong Kong protests of 2019 fizzled out in early 2020 due to the pandemic before the Chinese National Security Law was enacted, ending the protests). Into this complex environment, add conspiracy, spread through social media and forwarded messages, where political interests spout statements that the pandemic is nothing but a method by the government to control the public or by corporations to make money.
These suggestions typically do not take place as debates where facts or analyses are pulled from credible sources. Rather they commonly dump bits of unverified or unverifiable data and make emotional, often vitriolic or aggravated arguments, about how the common man is being harmed by someone in power, by the wealthy or by shadowy figures. As described before, it is next to impossible to fight these arguments because some people believe them when they encounter them, without considering whether the information is accurate. For a conspiracy theory to achieve its creators’ goals, it is not necessary that everyone believes it; a minority of committed believers is sufficient.
There are also website sources which spread fake news to compound the problem, but that is beyond the scope of this article. I may write another.
How can we protect ourselves?
The difficult way to deal with it is to analyse the messages using the criteria set out above. It is also possible to search for keywords or individuals mentioned in the messages to check whether the contents are already discussed on the internet. Searching the message subject with the keyword “hoax” or looking up sites such as snopes.com may provide clues. This method may work for individuals who are serious about understanding the truth and are willing to challenge their own biases. However, if they encounter a conspiracy which somehow aligns with their existing political ideologies, they may not realise that they need to scrutinise the information in the same manner as if they encountered an idea that did not sit well with them.
What is needed is to stop the flow of such false information altogether. Social media companies have responded by hiring large teams of moderators to censor a variety of posts which are identified as false. What can we do for the information that gets shared in our chat groups with family and friends? I have been asking my family to only forward information if it has been verified, i.e. no forwarding of information that the forwarder has not validated or does not otherwise know to be true. This rule only pertains to forwarded information, i.e. nobody is restricted from sharing their own views.
The burden of truth checking is placed on the person who shares the information. The actual content of the message is trivialised unless the information is first checked. In many cases, finding the original source of the information should provide a reasonable level of confidence. In reality, much information that gets forwarded intentionally has no source to make this check that much more difficult. Sometimes a name may be attached to the information that can be trivially invalidated with an internet search. The criteria that I listed in the section “Why do recipients spread these messages?” provide tell-tale signs to watch out for. However, the people who are prone to sharing such information do not tend to check it. This also means that most information that causes the recipients to think their family and friends “need to know about” and ends up getting forwarded is far more likely to be false than true. I may write another article on the credibility of news sources.
Upon coming upon an interesting message, if you cannot verify the information, it would be a service to your friends and family to not forward it. The very fact that one feels a desire to share the information makes it suspect.
This is an article that I have sat down to write many times over the last two years, but a coherent thesis covering both conspiracy theories and viral messages previously eluded me. It was only after I listened to audiobooks on conspiracy theories, human psychology and propaganda that I was finally armed with the knowledge that I needed to string the threads together. My hope is that this article teaches readers to be wary of the information that they consume.
- If you do not know that the information is credible, do not send it on to others.
- If you receive a forwarded message that purports to share vital information that did not originate from the sender, obligate them to validate the information before they burden you with it.