5 frames for making sense of fake news

Like an onion, the behavioural science and systems design of misinformation has many layers. We explore five sense making frames to unmask the layers of fake news that flourishes on social media platforms.

Frame#1. Does it feel like the world is falling apart? 

Imagine if you doubled the gravity constant. We’d all be pulled toward the floor; many buildings would collapse; birds would fall from the sky and all sorts of unusual things would become normal. In an essay titled, The Dark Psychology of Social Networks, Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell explains why this thought experiment is what we are running through our social media channels. 

In a world where extreme opinions are rewarded with likes and comments, if ten of your connections are sharing the same, this shapes your sense making of what must be the truth. From the theory of social comparisons, we know individuals tend to adjust their own opinions to be viewed more favourably by their peers. The authors highlight that 'Fake news' can easily emerge in this environment, especially as a personal blog post can be given the same look and feel as a story from a credible source.

Insight - Reduce the reach of unverified accounts and spread of malicious information by championing the ethical use of artificial intelligence.

Frame#2. How did we deal with fake news in the past?

It was once rumoured that if a woman with permed hair went to work for an ammunition factory, her head would explode. Malicious rumours like these prompted Frances Sweeney, founder of the Boston City Reporter, to make it her mission to combat misinformation and other harmful rumours. It was under her suggestion during World War II that the Boston Herald began the first ‘Rumor Clinic’ with two leading psychologists identifying toxic rumours and tracking it back to its source.

r = I × A; The basic rumour formula expresses rumor as a direct function of importance and ambiguity.

When we are dealing with a situation of heightened importance and increasing uncertainty, rumour serves as an outlet for filling gaps in our knowledge. The formula as reported in this article discusses how the two psychologists Gordon Allport and Robert Knapp at Harvard University analysed 1,100 wartime rumors to create the ‘basic rumour formula’. The clinic debunked toxic rumours every week which was then printed and supported with a fact from a local expert.

Insight - Use a local messenger to proactively debunk rumours especially in a climate of high uncertainty and situations demanding high attention.

Frame#3.  What does deliberate design on social media look like?

When you buy an office chair, you can get an adjustable back rest, medium-firm seat cushioning, extended lumbar support, mobility wheels or even ditch it all for a standing desk. Through a process of deliberate design, the field of ergonomics understands our changing physiological and psychological needs to make chairs that help us keep better posture and avoid chronic back pain. Former design ethicist at Google, Tristan Harris, is raising alarms by highlighting that we don’t adopt the same principles of ergonomics when it comes to the design of technology platforms.

Tristan, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, notes that fifty designers across three technology firms decide how to hold the attention span of more than 2 billion people on a daily basis. The algorithms which are designed to place content generating the most clicks on top of people’s feeds, leads to a selection of attention grabbing headlines and content that generates outrage. We ought to question the responsibility of the handful of designers that hold these positions of power and evaluate how value sets of social media companies may differ from people they are designing for. 

Insight - Allow people to articulate what values they choose for curating more meaningful information into our attentional bandwidth on social media.

Frame#4. When can we work with the grain of digital channels?

Audrey Tang, the awe-inspiring Digital Minister of Taiwan explains their tactic deployed to combat misinformation was very straightforward - humour over rumour. When panic buying of toilet paper was on the rise, there was a rumour floating around that with mask production being ramped up, the stock of toilet paper was going to run out. She demonstrates on Ted how the Taiwanese premier appeared in a humorous avatar with the caption, “We have only one pair of buttocks!”. 

Audrey Tang explores How digital innovation can fight pandemics and strengthen democracy

The illustrated graphic also showed a table clarifying that the pulp in toilet paper is imported from South America and has no bearing on medical mask production because those raw materials were sourced locally. This post went viral and the rumour was quickly and effectively squashed. This strategy works within the existing landscape of social media which encourages the sharing of humour over rumour.

Insight - Humour serves as a vaccine against conspiracy theories by spreading factual information on high priority issues.

Frame#5. Why we need to consider what good looks like?

In a socio-economic system; where a dead whale in a fishing boat is worth hundreds of dollars and a live whale is worth nothing, we have a value system that incentivises certain harmful behaviours. Evolutionary philosopher and social engineer, Daniel Schmachtenberger points out that in hundred years of industrialised farming, we’ve removed most of the fish species from a planet which is mostly water. His discussion warns us that when we factor in exponential technology with rivalry, the increased widespread polarisation can pose an existential risk for the entire system. 

When we talk about the health of a person, it’s nonsensical to talk about the health of their liver or kidney in isolation without understanding the person’s medical history, underlying physiology and environment as a whole. Within the confines of the social media landscape, if actors are incentivised on the basis of attention, we end up creating a very distorted collective psyche. People need to be involved in the sense making of what good looks like, and only then will their choices prevail over the vested interests that are hidden in the system. 

Insight - Design new systems of governance with bottom-up approaches to satisfy both the values of us as individuals and the collective as a whole.

If you have another frame to explore fake news, we would love to hear from you. You can check out our five innovations for physical distancing from our library.

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