Kiara Sunder, a clinical psychologist practising at Netcare Akeso Umhlanga
Why people continue to spread misinformation with often harmful consequences
Spreading fake news is generally acknowledged as being disruptive and potentially harmful. So much so that our nation’s president has on several occasions cautioned the public against sharing false information, with particular reference to the COVID-19 pandemic. So, what drives people to create and circulate fake news?
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. These motives are multi-layered and can be quite 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.
Historically, news was received in print or broadcast format via official news channels, which the public trusted as having been researched and verified. 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.
The internet has given a voice to anyone and everyone. While this has its benefits, it also means that a great deal of information is shared unchecked. Digital illiteracy is of growing concern, and is particularly prevalent amongst older generations. Younger people who have grown up with technology have high levels of digital literacy built into their schema, or cognitive framework for organising information. This gives them a certain level of built-in understanding about what is and is not ‘real’ online. 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.
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The spectrum of motives behind fake news
There is a broad spectrum of what drives people to create and share misinformation. Some of these factors are less obvious and while it is multi-layered, there are some clear psychological motivations that can be observed.
Social status seeking
While these users may not be aware of the motives behind their behaviour, they are in fact seeking status and self-promotion, indicating that some emotional needs are not being met in real life.
- Being relevant – Many individuals feel constantly bombarded by social media posts of friends and influencers who appear to be highly successful and this can lead to feelings of inadequacy amongst those who do not have the same type of content to share online. They therefore turn to sharing other types of information, regardless of factual accuracy, to present themselves as having something to say.
- Being the first – Some individuals feel ongoing pressure to become the first to post or share any new piece of information, true or false. This can also be a type of social gratification to be seen as a ‘protector’ of one’s online community.
There are people suffering from anxiety and mental health conditions who use social media as an escape or as a channel for processing their own feelings.
- Escape – Many individuals experience anxiety from daily news about events taking place in the world and they may choose to switch off from that and consume social media instead. However, this can lead to people engaging in intrusive and factually baseless content without realising it.
- Expression – Some individuals 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.
- Group mentality – Needing to feel that you 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.
Needing to feel validated is also a motivating factor amongst those who spread fake news on a more regular basis, particularly those who buy into alternative views, or conspiracy theories.
- Lack of objectivity – It is a natural human reaction that when we read, hear or view something that confirms our own beliefs, we feel validated by it and we may then accept it as being true. People who place their own beliefs above verified, factual information are therefore highly susceptible to spreading, and often even creating, fake news, as their ideologies are not widely reflected in the media, leading them to feel unsupported in their thoughts. The motivation here is not malice but a lack of objectivity.
- Technology overlap – There is an overlap with technology here, as the algorithms in search engines and social media platforms track the content that we consume and push similar content towards us, which informs much of what we see, again confirming belief or preference rather than fact.
Persons who create and knowingly spread fake news intentionally will often have a political or psychological agenda, which they are trying to advance or serve. These individuals may have the intent to do harm or are so single minded in their pursuit that they have no regard for any damage they may cause.
- Politically motivated – This includes those working for a specific cause that is not receiving the attention they feel it deserves, or who may have intent to do damage to another person or group. These individuals will create or spread fake news to achieve such ends.
- Histrionics – Someone with a histrionic personality trait, who craves attention and drama, may create or share a sensational piece of information, sometimes using a lot of capital letters, exclamation marks or emojis to make it appear more dramatic. They may relate it to themselves for attention or create some attention toward themselves.
- Narcissists – Narcissistic personalities may share information for the sake of appearing to be important and knowledgeable. Individuals with narcissistic traits may be self-centred, have less empathy and desire admiration. They may share news, fake or true, that puts the spotlight on them regardless of the consequences it may have to others.
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. Such fraudulent activity is often disguised as a highly legitimate-looking advert or other form of communication, and the persons targeted may feel pressured by the ambiguity of the situation. Often not knowing how to verify the information presented, victims may fall prey to the scam, resulting in serious financial loss.
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.
Psycho-social considerations for parents and guardians
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.
For information about concentration and memory concerns or accessing mental health services or if you are in an emotional crisis, Netcare Akeso is here to help. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org, visit www.akeso.co.za or www.copetherapy.co.za. In the event of a psychological crisis, emergency support can be reached at 0861 435 787, 24 hours a day.