False Information’s Hidden Agenda


Ryder Yarbrough

    As a teenage student in 2020, I currently live my life online. Instead of looking up and experiencing the world through my own eyes, I am limited to looking down and learning about it through various screens.

    While I stow myself away, waiting for a safe time to emerge, I must keep up to date with current events. I, like everyone else, still need the basis to form my opinions about the things affecting me.

    Information gives us what we need to form judgements and decisions. It influences our thoughts more than we realize. So what happens when that information is fake?

    Think about some of your larger opinions: your political stance, what colleges you think you’d like to attend, your stance on climate change, your opinion about vaccines, your thoughts about the ongoing pandemic, etc. These unique stances on a topic form after you learn things about it.

    Take the pandemic as an example. Substantial amounts of false information about the coronavirus and related topics is spreading online, and this has created divisions in our society. False information has created distrust of masks, science, and government leadership among large groups of people online and offline. 

    Different groups of people believe different facts, and that makes it hard to come together in a mutual understanding and acceptance of the truth. If there was only true information, and the media kept a reputation the people could trust, we would be able to more efficiently stop problems like the ongoing pandemic.

    Some people may say that false information doesn’t affect us enough for it to be a real issue. Who cares if someone lies on the internet? 

    Before I did my research, I thought the same thing. However, my opinion changed as I looked at the effects of information, true or false, with an open mind.

    As I mentioned before, false information that spreads through the media messes with our minds, as information develops our opinions, judgements, beliefs, and more.

    You don’t have to fall victim to false information directly for it to influence your life. Elections bring huge waves of misleading information, and the results can change our lives for better or for worse. While my political views are almost entirely based on those of my parents, some North Creek seniors may have already experienced looking through false information to decide their own votes.

    Like the majority of others, I am now exposing myself to more and more media, whether for school work or to pass the time. For instance, social media is an easy escape from boredom, and we often log on to our accounts out of pure habit. However, this is one place false information can effectively strike. 

    A 2018 study conducted by MIT Sloan professor David Rand and his co-author Gordon Pennycook found that lazy thinking largely contributes to the spread and belief of false information.

    “Our study suggests that falling for fake news is a symptom of cognitive laziness rather than motivated reasoning or self-deception,” said Rand, “That is, contrary to popular belief, it is not the case that people are thinking too much about the wrong things. Rather, a little thinking might go a long way to fix the problem of fake news.”

    More often than not we don’t scroll through social media to find facts, and to think analytically. Facts, whether true or false, find us, and we intake them with far less organized minds.

    Another reason false information can spread on social media is because it can target our emotions.

    A 2019 study published in Science by MIT Sloan professor Sinan Aral and Deb Roy and Soroush Vosoughi of the MIT Media Lab, found that falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than the truth, and reach their first 1,500 people six times faster.

    The researchers believe one reason for this is because of the novelty hypothesis.

    The novelty hypothesis states that human attention is drawn to novelty; things that are new in the environment. They also believe that we like to share this novel information, as it feels like we have access to inside information, and that we gain in status by spreading it.

    To move past the looming issue of false information, society needs to establish trust. Trust in the media, and trust in each other. However, this is not a problem that disappears overnight. Trust takes time, and it may take even longer for society to take action. 

    It may seem that fighting false information in the media is a lost cause. However, while you can’t control others, you can still control yourself. Browse social media with a sharper mind. When you come across a surprising story or interesting fact, control your emotions, and think. If you have the patience, even a simple google search can debunk a wild claim.

    There is so much to still be said about this evolving problem, however you and I will experience most of it in our days to come. The futures of maturing students such as myself are certain to be crammed with information. The existence of false information will never stop, and our minds are sure to be tested, but the future is bright, and there is more to the world than conflicting opinions.