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My endeavor is to delve into certain issues to give you some perspective, help you understand the world better, attempt to understand why we do what we do, and maybe in all of this, make the world teeny-weeny better! 

Disclaimer: It may be a tad bit opinionated!

So, let's get to it...

The Ubiquity of Fake News

It was a quiet chilly morning and business was as usual for traders on 23 April 2013. There were modest gains that could be seen on Dow, but up until lunchtime. Just when the traders broke for lunch, at 13:07 something caught the world’s attention. A tweet on Associated Press’s official Twitter handle that read “Breaking News: Two Explosions in White House and Barack Obama is injured.” Data mining companies, that are constantly sifting for news on social media picked it up and sent out sell recommendations to financial institutions. This caused markets to go into a selling frenzy. Within three minutes the Dow went into a free fall shedding 200 points, in the process wiping out $139 billion. But nothing had happened to the White House and the President was fine. At 13:10 Associated Press released a statement clarifying that the tweet was a fake. It was later revealed that Syrian hackers had broken into Associated Press's official Twitter account. Though markets rebounded, three minutes after AP’s press release at 13:13 recovering all the index losses but people lost real money.

When Hurricane Harvey hit southern Texas in 2017, thousands of people were displaced from their homes. Oil refineries were shut. News of gas shortage spread like wildfire on Facebook and Twitter. Panic ensued as drivers lined up at gas stations. Gas stations pasted ‘out of gas’ signages outside stations. This further fuelled the panic and created ripple effects on all the southern states of the US. Later authorities revealed that there was no gas shortage. The highway closures during the panic had delayed gas deliveries to the stations but there was ample gas available. The panic created by this fake news eventually led to gas outages and a stockpiling mania. Sounds familiar?

When such news travels through our social network it’s hard to stop it, even harder to verify it, and before we know damage has already been done. The news may be fake but the havoc it wreaks on the economy and its people is very much real. Be it the Flash Crash of 2013 or the gas havoc of 2017 apart from the fragility of the digital age that we live in, one thing that has come out for certain is that - fake news spreads faster than real news. What's even worse is that in this digital age, our susceptibility to fake news is even more pronounced than real news.


A leading research team at MIT Social Analytica Labs, headed by leading scientists studying the impact of the digital phenomenon, conducted a study in collaboration with Twitter and published it in the journal of Science, to analyze the spread of fake news vis-a-vis real news spanning over a decade.[1]

The findings are very intriguing and are blatantly more relevant as of today than ever before –

  • False news spreads not only faster but farther and deeper also – The study showed that truth rarely reached 1000 people, whereas the false news managed to diffuse to 100,000. It took six times as long for the truth as compared to fake news.

  • False political news had more virality, which reached more than 20,000 people i.e. three times more on average as against any other news category that at max reached up to 10,000. Political news and urban legends were leading categories.

  • False news was 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth.

  • But this is the coolest one! Whereas one might naturally think that fake news spread was catalyzed by the influencer category of users i.e. users having more followers belonging to the ‘verified’ category and have been on Twitter for very long, the study revealed quite the opposite. The fake news spreaders had significantly fewer followers, followed significantly fewer people, were significantly less active on Twitter and were often less ‘verified’, and spent significantly less time on the platform on average.


Expectedly so the factors contributing to rising of fake news is mostly emotional and basic but in these factors lie the heart of why news or ideas tend to become viral:

  • Fake news creates an element of surprise that catches our attention – Researchers have analyzed that this arises when people at large are grappling with something unexpected something that is against the norm e.g. it’s shocking to come across the sudden death of someone young and active person or the death of Kurt Cobain. The realm of the unknown like conspiracy theories or urban legends draws our attention at reading the news. False rumors invoked more surprise and disgust than the truth that invoked sadness and anticipation. Another sub-component of surprise can result in the feeling of ‘awe’ from coming across something unexpected i.e. that sense of wonder and amazement that someone is moved or inspired.[2] Awe-inspiring articles were 30 percent more likely to be shared as compared to sadness-related articles which were 16 percent less likely to be shared.[3]

  • Fake news provides us with social currency – ‘Just as people use the money to buy products or services they use social currency to achieve impressions among other people.’ It is the high we get if we share something that is unexpected or unknown with someone else. It gives us a sense of knowledge superiority and a feeling of one-upmanship over the other. Researchers found that people tend to share things with others that make them look good. That’s the intangible currency that one derives from sharing something normally unknown to others. Usually, the knowledge of the unknown makes you feel like an insider.

  • Fake news activates our confirmation bias – There is an interesting saying by a famous criminologist ‘When people come into contact with crime, they abhor it. If they remain in contact with crime for a time, they become accustomed to it and endure it. If they remain in contact with it long enough, they become influenced by it.’[4] This is the equivalent of saying that if you keep hammering people with fake news they are more likely to believe it. It gets confirmed by what they already think. In effect, the more we hear something and the more it is in sync with our beliefs and thoughts the more we are likely to believe it and further share it.


Sadly we all can’t do much about it as it’s almost impossible for us to ratify what we see. However, we can mindfully take certain steps to sieve out the real news and discard the fake. This brings me back to an article I had written just when the pandemic struck ‘A Healthy Work From Home Recipe’ introducing the concept of an Attention Diet[5] (which I intend to expand further in follow-up articles), that has become increasingly significant in today’s times than ever before.

To reiterate what I had earlier written –

The two goals of the Attention Diet are:-

  • The first is to identify what stuff is worth paying attention to? , and

  • The second is to find out nutritional pieces of information to feed your mind.

The three steps to implementing the Attention Diet are:

  1. Make a consistent effort to weed out junk information i.e. information that is unreliable, unhelpful, or unimportant. It is short-form content, flashy, emotionally charged, and addictive. Junk information hooks us because it is pleasing and easy, causing us to develop low-level addictions. Junk gives us an escape route from our daily stresses, and so eliminating this would be tough! It would trigger a volley of emotions inside.

  2. Make efforts to correctly identify nutritious information, i.e. information that is reliable, helpful, very likely important. It is long-form content, thought-provoking, requiring deep analysis and reflection. Nutritional information, since it is long, will be considered boring. It will require us to stay vested in something for longer durations. It will be tough to consume such pieces of information but they will help you with some high-level behaviors.

  3. Consciously cultivate habits of deeper focus, deeper research and inculcate longer attention spans - as the Nobel laureate economist Herbert Simon quoted ‘a wealth of information has created a poverty of attention’ the deluge of information overload has only deprived us of our ability to focus deeper and has drastically reduced our attention spans. However ‘in a world with infinite information, you don’t grow by knowing more, you grow by the ability to 'correctly' focus on less.’ (the keyword here is 'correctly'!)

It is suspected that fake news websites generated upwards of $200 million in revenue in 2019 alone and considering the time we are in I can’t even imagine what that number might have gone up to by now.

Fake news is big business, so beware and be aware!


Footnotes: [1] The largest study ever conducted! The data included over 126,000 twitter cascades spread over 3 million people over 4.5 million times verified from six independent fact-checking organizations. Reference from The Hype Machine by Sinan Aral (Head of MIT Initiative [2] The feeling of ‘Awe’ as defined by psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt [3] A reference is drawn from The Most E-Mailed List as mentioned in Made to Stick by Chip & Dan Heath. [4] A reference s drawn from the chapter on ‘Faith’ in Think & Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. [5] A reference from the article The Attention Diet’ by Mark Manson




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