April 9, 2020, by Sean McMahon, LHC Program Manager


We’ve all had our experiences with fake news. I mean real, legitimately fake news. The catchy headlines that beg you to click them because they’re so outrageous and you’re already biased towards believing anything so infuriating about the people who disagree with your interpretation of reality.

Wait a minute. I don’t want to get ahead of myself here. It’s hard to remain unbiased, especially when we’re surrounded by news outlets propelled by a 24-hour news cycle and the expectation of high viewership. It’s hard to remain unbiased when we typically surround ourselves with people who agree with us. It’s hard to remain unbiased when we’re human.

Maybe we shouldn’t be trying to beat fake news at its own game – inciting anger, promoting tribalism, and engaging in all sorts of fallacies. Instead of diving into some of my more recent experiences with crazy, incendiary headlines in the past few months (off-the-wall commentaries on presidential candidates, the president himself, the current pandemic, and a host of other things), let’s look into why the click-bait works so well, and how these sorts of things spread.

When I started writing this, I remembered a couple of YouTube videos that I saw a few years ago on this very topic. The first is from the channel Smarter Every Day, in which the host of the show reflects on his interview with President Obama.

The second video, “This Video Will Make You Angry,” come from CGP Grey. This video goes further in explaining the “echo-chambers” brought up in the Smarter Every Day video.

In the midst of the current crisis, it may be bad taste to liken fake news and memes to a pathogen. But then again, perhaps that is the perfect metaphor. After all, it’s called “going viral” for a reason.

While we all have the right to view the world however our beliefs and values guide us, we also have a responsibility to protect the truth. My rule of thumb: If it sounds outlandish, it probably is. Look into it before you believe it and dig deeper before you share it. Just like how you’d wash your hands before eating, and how you’d cough into your elbow instead of directly onto other people.