Uncovering the science behind fake news
December 7, 2017 by Pigalle
In the age of digital information overload and with outrageous claims flying around, knowing the difference between fact and fiction is becoming tricky. To help unpick these we ran a Fake News pub quiz at The Book Club in Shoreditch. Aided and abetted by political psychologist Keith O’Brien and conspiracy theory psychologist Viren Swami, we uncovered reality from lies.
With ‘Fake News’ as this year’s Word of the Year in the Collins Dictionary, there’s never been a better time to delve into the science behind it. We asked if fake news is just harmless fun, and what the role of the internet is in the rise of conspiracy theories.
Our scientists pointed out that misinformation is being consumed as fact, and the rise of social media is spreading conspiracy theories faster than ever before. A BuzzFeed report recently found that fake news stories were viewed more times than articles from legitimate news sources. With so many websites spreading false headlines, we asked the quiz teams to guess which headlines were based on a fact or fiction. Have a look at the Daily Mail newsletter cover below – can you spot which is fake?
The cover asking Theresa May to GO NOW turned out to be a fake – it went viral after fooling thousands of people, including journalists and politicians. The layout was based on a real newspaper cover, and published after the prime minister called the snap election. Political expert Keith recommended always checking the credibility of a news headline by looking for the story on other sources. If other well-respected news outlets are reporting the same, it’s likely to be trustworthy information. On the other hand, if you evaluate the evidence and cannot find any corroboration, it could be false.
We continued by attempting to confuse teams with fantastical science truths and falsehoods, for example: ‘Earth’s magnetic north pole is moving northward at a rate of 10 miles per year, which means the magnetic poles will eventually switch’, and the ‘Earth is hollow, accessible via portals at the north and south poles’. Can you uncover the fact from fiction here?
Although this sounds far-fetched, we revealed that the Earth’s magnetic poles will actually switch. Over the last 20 million years, the poles have reversed approximately every 200,000 to 300,000 years. Fossil records show no drastic changes in plant or animal life, and evidence from the oceans show that the rotation of Earth’s axis hasn’t been affected – contrary to conspiracy theories that believe this would result in the destruction of our planet.
However, the teams were unanimous in declaring the Earth is not hollow, even though there is a popular conspiracy theory claiming that the lost Viking colonies of Greenland live inside the Earth’s core…
We further unpicked conspiracy theories with expert Viren. Everyone correctly identified that there is a conspiracy theory falsely claiming that Jay Z was employed by the Illuminati to sweep their chimney in 1939, now coming back as a time-travelling vampire to spread mind controlling lyrics.
However, tougher was the theory that billionaires are engaging scientists to break us out of the Matrix. Our audience was shocked to discover that this is actually taking place right now. Viren explained that people who tend to believe in conspiracy theories usually feel alienated and powerless to ask questions about the world they live in. By questioning the status quo, conspiracies fulfill a role to give them a sense of agency. Because of this, conspiracy theorists form strong beliefs that are not based on rational evidence.
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said, “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”. So we put the teams to the numbers test, to see if they could spot the dodgy science from the statistics. We told them that 2014 was one of the deadliest years for plane crashes, with 22 accidents resulting in 992 fatalities, showing that flying is no longer safe. Keith revealed that the way we frame numbers is important to understanding if they are biased – to show this we missed out a key bit of information – that the number of flights keeps increasing, meaning that the number of deaths per million passengers or per million miles flown has actually drastically declined. The real statistics are that an individual’s chances of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 5 million, and you are 1000 times more likely to die from choking or unintentional poisoning.
It was a neck and neck run to the final scores, with ‘Make Trivia Great Again’ team closely beating ‘In Cider Information’ and ‘The Quiz Master Is Shit’ teams with a resounding 20 out of 30 marks! They won a round of celebratory drinks and Guerilla Science tote bags to take away, proving that they were far better at being factual sleuths than certain political figures might like to mislead us to think…