Combat fake news with verifiable evidence

By Gary Frank

A critical step in resisting the influence of so-called fake news is to realize that social divisions lead to false rumors and that human beings are “social first, truth second” according to Drew Margolin, assistant professor of communication.

“Fake news may be shocking but is actually not that surprising,” he said. “You can’t convince people to be in solidarity with fact. You have to get them to solidarity and then deal with fact.”

Margolin was the keynote speaker at a campus-wide “Breaking Bread” dinner and discussion on Nov, 1 titled “Communicating Knowledge and Truth by Technology and Social Media: Bridging Generational Divides.” The Breaking Bread series is designed to bring all members of campus together to discuss timely and meaningful topics.

Drew Margolin, assistant professor of communication, speaks at the “Breaking Bread” dinner and discussion on Nov. 1.

“When people are uncertain about something it triggers them to try and provoke conversation about it, and when they provoke conversation one of the ways that they do that is by making a speculative statement, which is technically what a rumor is,” said Margolin.

Rumors framed as narratives are easier for people to understand, to remember and to pass on and can be a very effective way to draw attention to individual or collective concerns, he said.

“If I say something about Hillary Clinton strikes me as ‘not trustworthy,’ people say ‘hmmm’ and move on. But if I say I hear she’s running a pornography ring, people will listen and they will respond,” explained Margolin.

Social media has made it easier for false rumors to circulate, he said. Sharing of misinformation becomes pervasive when those sharing feel socially rewarded by likes, shares and comments.

Drew Margolin discusses communicating truth and knowledge on various social networking sites.

“Most of us aren’t sharing news because we’re trying to improve democracy, we share it because we want ‘likes.’ We share it because we want friends,” said Margolin. “If you can create a website that gets shared a lot you will be paid for that through advertisers. So, we have a natural inclination and a capitalistic motivation all rowing in the same direction. The result is it’s just too easy to create something fake, inject it into the community, and watch it take off.”

When asked if fake news could be countered, Margolin suggested that individual should start by raising their awareness of what they are sharing, and that they may be being influenced by businesses that seek to profit from that sharing.

“The brain wants news that is emotionally stimulating. If you become aroused or excited by the news, you’re more likely to want to share it,” he said. “Technology is increasing their [businesses] ability to overwhelm us with delicious content.”

Last but not least, Margolin recommended that individuals only share information that has “verifiable evidence” behind it.

“What helps people is if you can give them more information so they can understand how that one piece of false information fits into a context rather than asking the brain to un-think what’s been said,” he said. “We can encourage norms of reasoning with verifiable evidence.”

Learn more about our “Breaking Bread” program and other community initiatives.