is emotional intelligence the secret to defeating fake news?

Mastering your emotions and understanding what others feel and why can make you more resistant to fake news and social media hoaxes.
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Photo illustration by Mark Daynes

With an epidemic of hoaxes, scams, conspiracy theories, and propaganda posing as legitimate facts and reporting, ravaging global politics and civil society, researchers have been looking for ways to understand how to combat fake news and what makes some people more resistant to it than others. Understanding that is key to teaching better media literacy and creating new and better algorithms to minimize the spread of fake news, which is why scientists are busy trying to figure out how to get people to stop creating their own cozy little bubbles of lie-filled cognitive dissonance. If we allow reality to be whatever people want it to be, a lot of important problems will go unsolved while we battle imaginary monsters.

We know that age and levels of media literacy play key roles because older social media users are far more likely to spread lies, and countries which teach media literacy blunt the impact of fake news on their public discourse. We also know that educational attainment doesn’t matter because highly educated people just get more creative in defending their favorite conspiracy theories and lies. And now we know that emotional intelligence also plays a critical part, and that people who understand how to read emotions and are very aware of what they’re feeling and why are more resistant to fake news than those who lack those abilities because they can cut to the core of what drives social media disinformation.

In a study of 87 people, researchers in the UK presented six news stories, three fake and three real, after measuring the emotional intelligence, or EQ, of the participants. No one was able to tell exactly which stories were real and which were fake with perfect accuracy, but those with high EQ scores were significantly less likely to fall for frauds and pointed out when stories felt like they were just trying to get a reaction with inflammatory rhetoric and had little backing or sketchy sourcing. The reason for that is simple. Fake news thrives on creating outrage, which gives it traction thanks to social media algorithms that prize engagement over truth. Those who know that an article is just trying to get people riled up see through the ruse.

For example, consider that real news reports about the COVID pandemic focus on statistics, probabilities, and say that while you probably won’t die from the disease if you’re not elderly or in certain high risk groups, there are long term complications we don’t fully understand yet, and that we’re still studying its variants and their impact. They’re unnerving, but express concerns rooted in epidemiological data. By contrast, fake news about COVID accuse doctors of lying about the severity and spread of the disease, push elaborate conspiracy theories, and paint common, simple public health measures as nothing less than the opening gambit in a sinister plot to enslave the planet under a tyrannical new world order.

In this case, legitimate news reports want you to keep alarming issues in mind and root them in facts from the field. Their goal is clearly to warn you and encourage you to listen to the experts, wear masks when you’re out in public, and get vaccinated as soon as you can, hardly the stuff of totalitarian dystopias. Meanwhile, fake news peddlers want your attention by concocting all sorts of apocalyptic and blood-curdling plots against you and your loved ones, and often don’t shy from portraying your friends and family as either brainwashed zombies or malevolent tools of whatever nefarious cabal they say is secretly pulling the strings. There are no solutions, just denial and recursive fear.

Of course, there are limitations on this study’s findings and its applications in the real world. The articles in question were focused on everyday topics to make it harder to detect which were fake. But real articles detailing shocking scandals can both trigger outrage and be factual, and insisting that any content that creates too much engagement is probably fake could easily kill an important, true story that may be emotionally charged for good reasons. Likewise, researchers also posit that it’s not just high EQ that’s important, but high EQ and good critical thinking skills working in tandem to identify emotional manipulation, then forcing the person to pay attention to flaws that show that the story may be lying.

Still, this study does give us some guidelines on how to avoid falling for fake news. First, look for attempts to stir outrage or tug at the heartstrings. Second, see why the story is doing that and how. Third, take note of the sources it cites and whether the writing allows for nuance and actual analysis, or if it simply veers off into sophistry and polemics. And finally, consider the reputation of the outlet and whether it has a history of publishing fact-free histrionics, or outright lies and hoaxes billed as breaking news. Sure, these steps aren’t foolproof, but with so many frauds and liars infesting social media today, and the platforms unable, and often unwilling, to fix this mess, you’ll at least be able to detect fake news far more often than not.

See: Preston, S., et al. (2021) Detecting fake news on Facebook: The role of emotional intelligence, PLOS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0246757

# science // emotions / fake news / psychology


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