Fake news has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. In 2019, the top 100 fake news stories on Facebook were viewed over 150 million times. Millions of Americans have been exposed to such stories as Pizzagate (the idea that the Clintons ran a secret pedophile sex ring), the myth that Donald Trump’s father was a KKK member, and the lie that Congresswoman Ilhan Omar held “Secret Fundraisers With Islamic Groups Tied to Terror.”
Fake news is designed to appeal to our psychology, and the authors hack our brains to make these stories go viral. How do you, as a strong and integrous man, avoid believing and sharing stories that turn out to be false information?
#1: Recognize That the World Is Complex
The world is full of shades of grey, and is unutterably complex. The sheer complexity of a single tree (composed of billions of atoms) or a single human being (with millions of thoughts and memories) should be enough to humble us and beggar belief.
That same complexity holds when it comes to our society. Real news is rarely black and white. In the real world, mass shooters can be Bernie supporters (which doesn’t indict Bernie’s philosophy), race-baiting Donald Trump supported the First Step Act, and even the heroic Martin Luther King had affairs. Life is complex, and complex things are messy.
Fake news, on the other hand, is often tailor-made to look clean. Every detail points towards the same conclusion: that our team are the good guys, and the other team is the bad guys. Jussie Smollett’s faux hate crime is a good example. He alleged that two white men wearing MAGA hats accosted him, shouted racial and homophobic slurs (Smollet is black and gay), and tied a noose around his neck before leaving. Every detail fed neatly into the narrative that in “Trump’s America,” white Republicans would openly harass and assault minorities.
The problem with the story? Smollett made the entire thing up.
If you want to stop the spread of fake news, here’s a rule of thumb. If it sounds too good (i.e. too damning for your opponents) to be true, it probably is.
#2: See the Humanity In Your Political Opponents
Most humans beings aren’t evil or stupid. Most of our political opponents are good, smart people who happen to see the world differently from us.
Fake news, however, tends to paint our opponents in the absolute worst light. The lie that Bill and Hillary Clinton ran a secret pedophile sex ring is a good example of this. So is the widespread lie that Joe Biden referred to Trump supporters as “Dregs of society.”
When you see a news story, ask yourself, “How stupid or evil would my political opponents have to be for this story to be true?” If the answer is, “very”, then proceed with skepticism.
A caveat here: some political actors do perform evil actions. Donald Trump’s attempted coup on January 6, 2021 is a good example of this. Assuming good intentions in your political opponents is a good rule of thumb, but shouldn’t be taken as an absolute law.
#3: Be Complete In Yourself
Perhaps the best way to combat the spread of fake news is to be complete in yourself. Be strong, be grounded, and have a sense of identity that’s reliant on who you are, not who your political team is.
The moment we identify ourselves as members of a political team, our brains begin working overtime to “prove” that our team is good and the other team is bad. In his excellent book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt uses the example of the elephant and the rider. The elephant (our intuitions and preferences) decides that X political team is good—it must be good, since we identify as part of it. The rider (our mind) is then tasked to seek out evidence that supports the elephant’s conclusions.
This can lead to extraordinary mental gymnastics, such as an inability to process information that would be harmful to your “team”. In a New York Times article titled, “The Real Story About Fake News is Partisanship,” Amanda Taub writes, “Americans’ deep bias against the political party they oppose is so strong that it acts as a kind of partisan prism for facts, refracting a different reality to Republicans than to Democrats.”
Jennifer Jeret, a professor of political science at Stony Brook University, puts it even more bluntly: “You can have very high levels of news coverage of a particular fact or an event and you see little or no learning among people who are motivated to disagree with that piece of information.”
A study even found that partisans with strong math skills were good at solving a math problem only if the solution to the problem conformed to their political beliefs. Conservatives, for instance, struggled to solve a math problem where the conclusion was that gun control reduced crime (liberals similarly struggled when the conclusion was that gun control increased crime).
How can we stop our brain from short-circuiting in this way? By developing a strong sense of identity that’s independent of our political team. That way, our elephant won’t automatically see the team as good, and our rider won’t jump through mental hoops to justify the team.
Without an attachment to a political team, we can evaluate each news story on its own merits rather than whether or not it makes our side look good.
#4: Seek Joy From Spirit, Not the Adulation of the Crowds
The biggest problem with fake news is how shareable it is. When we share a story that makes the other side look bad, we’re rewarded with lots of Likes and Shares and Retweets on social media.
It’s important to realize that social media platforms were designed this way. Sean Parker, founding president of Facebook, says, “Whenever someone likes or comments on a post or photograph, we give you a little dopamine hit.” Dopamine is associated with feelings of euphoria, and the dopamine-inducing design of Facebook is one reason that social media addiction is on the rise. The documentary The Social Network describes how social media companies monetize misinformation and disinformation by promoting content on their News Feeds that makes people more angry (which includes a lot of questionably true content).
How can we fight back? We can recognize that the adulation of the social media crowd, and the associated dopamine hits, are hollow. It’s euphoria, but of a very fragile kind. It is not true joy, any more than the temporary satisfaction of an alcoholic doing a shot is true joy.
True joy comes from following Spirit and your highest self. That will almost always involve a search for truth, since truth makes the world better. It rarely involves a clamor for external validation.
If you want to stop the spreading of misinformation, learn to differentiate the true joy of following Spirit from the false joy of external validation. Avoid seeking out the latter, online or offline.
Conclusion: A Deeper Cut
Lots of smart people write articles with tips for how to combat the spread of fake news. They talk about the importance of fact checking (ex. with Snopes), of reading articles before you share them (Twitter actually rolled out a feature recently to discourage people from sharing articles they haven’t read), and of checking reliable or nonpartisan news sources like the Pew Research Center.
There’s nothing wrong with these tips, but we wanted to take a deeper cut.
Fake news is hardwired to appeal to the ego. It targets our “us vs them” mentality, our ego’s desire for external validation, and our ego’s wish to see the world as a simple place of black and white.
The integrous and grounded man has his ego under control. For the healthy masculine man, the ego is a servant, not the master. When you are grounded, you feel no desire to believe or share fake news, because its siren song holds no appeal for you.
We specialize in helping men develop strength, integrity, and groundedness. To that end, we offer online men’s groups and 1-on-1 coaching. If you would like to build more strength and inner resilience, and master your ego, reach out today.