The Mental Health Impact of Information Warfare & Fake News
Here’s a newsflash: Information Warfare and fake news is not new
“All warfare is based on deception,” declared the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu in The Art of War (5th century BC). And deception goes back even farther—to Adam and Eve—which is to say misinformation and influence campaigns didn’t start with Pizzagate and the 2016 Presidential Election. What is new (and real by the way) is the dissemination of fake news via our 24-hour news cycle and our nonstop access to it.
As more of our lives migrate online, many believe the use of disinformation as a tool of persuasion and weapon of influence has reached new heights. We have more access to news than ever before—from mainstream news channels to social media to radio to podcasts. And it’s easier than ever to reach us—at any hour of the day or night—on any one of our many Internet-connected devices (think smartphone, tablet, laptop, smartwatch, Alexa, and more).
A recent study by the American Psychological Association 1 found that 66% of Americans are stressed out about the future of the country, and the constant consumption of news was pinpointed as a major contributor. It looks like breaking news is breaking us. And now, with so much misinformation being put out as truth, we are in an even more entrenched era of “headline stress disorder,” a term coined by author and therapist Steven Stosny, PhD in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. “For many people, continual alerts from news sources, blogs, social media, and alternative facts feel like missile explosions in a siege without end,” says Dr. Stosny in an Op-Ed published in the Washington Post.2 A lot of negative feelings like anxiety, hopelessness, despair, sadness is fueled by being tuned in to the 24-hour news cycle.
Information warfare is as old as warfare itself, and even affected George Washington posthumously. Three days after the Civil War began, on April 15, 1861, an article was published in the New York Herald that roiled the nation. It stated that the body of George Washington had been removed from his tomb, taken to the mountains of Virginia to be interred there. Given the tense political climate of the time, this early form of “click bait” likely spurred the sale of more papers, but also served to increase heightened tensions between the North and South.
The Changing Landscape of Truth: Social Media’s Slippery Slope
The rise of the Internet and social media has compounded the problem of fake news. The traditional news model— where we get information from a small number of outlets—has been upended by today’s media environment. Today, the channels are multifold, the messages constant, and often contradictory. We are faced, many times, with paradoxical messages, and it can become easier to cling to a simpler fiction than dissect a more complex reality. Here, two recent examples:
- Pope Francis endorsed President Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
- Former President Barack Obama banned the pledge of allegiance in schools before leaving office.
Since August 2017, 67% of Americans receive at least some of their news via social media, according to research from the Pew Research Center.3 Spreading misinformation messages to influence what people believe and how they behave—in ways they would not otherwise—like believing that global warming is not real despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, means that we are vulnerable to manipulation in ways that we are just beginning to fully appreciate.
“Social media allows you to reach virtually anyone and to play with their minds.”
-Uzi Shaya, former senior Israeli intelligence officer
The quote appeared in a recent New Yorker article. Shaya continued adding, “You can do whatever you want. You can be whoever you want.” The advent of the Internet opened a new arsenal of tools that can be used for manipulation including online hacking, aliases, bots, unattributed websites filled with fabricated content, social media avatars posting fake news.
Influence is the game, and information warfare is how this new type of war is won. To be able to plant seeds of ideas in people’s heads, have them question it and attempt to change their minds, is now the seat of power. And regulations have not kept pace with advances in technology, creating a Wild West anything-goes mindset.
These types of persuasion tactics have become big business. Social media, according to security experts P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking in their book LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media has “become a battlefield where information itself is weaponized.”4
Facebook’s Solutions for Solving the Problem
Just look at the role fake news on Facebook allegedly had on the 2016 US Presidential Election4. Since the revelations of how entrenched these influence campaigns were, Facebook has been working to improve its fake news filters, to make it harder for foreign entities to reach and manipulate audiences using Facebook’s advanced ad targeting.
Here are some of the measures Facebook has put into place in response to the problem:
- The launch of new page information to provide more data on who is behind a post
- The addition of third-party fact-checking on highly shared stories
- ‘Questionable’ stories now appear with a listing of related posts
A recent Social Media Today article reported that, “According to Facebook, three independent analysis reports—conducted by researchers from Stanford University/New York University, the University of Michigan, and French newspaper Le Monde—have all come to the same conclusion: “Facebook’s efforts to limit the spread of fake news are working.” The good news? Progress is being made, but major vulnerabilities continue to exist, and false information is still slipping into our social feeds, reaching millions of people.
The Mental Health Impact
Vasilis K. Pozios, MD, a forensic psychiatrist and co-founder of the mental health and media consultancy, Broadcast Thought, is an expert on the impact media can have on our mental wellbeing. In an interview with Psycom he explained the relationship. “Since ‘fake news,’ or false or misleading news intended to manipulate public opinion, it’s designed to provoke an emotional response from a reader/viewer, it’s often inflammatory in nature and can elicit feelings of anger, suspicion, anxiety, and even depression by distorting our thinking. But don’t just take my word for it…a national poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association (May 2017) reported that Americans across all demographic groups experienced sharp increases in anxiety levels in the past year.5
And it goes a level deeper: Dr. Pozios shared that “recognizing or perceiving fake news as “fake” can also elicit feelings of anger and frustration, especially if the reader/viewer feels powerless in the face of attempts to manipulate public opinion by way of fake news.”
So, what happens when we encounter fake news? We may be thinking with our “emotional brain” as opposed to our “rational brain.” Becoming aware of what kind of media triggers emotional thinking and learning how to employ rational thinking instead can help. Dr. Pozios recommends evaluating all information that’s presented to us—even when it comes from “trusted” sources. According to Dr. Pozios, “this takes practice (more practice for some than others!), and individual triggers may vary from person to person. But by utilizing this strategy, we can help protect ourselves from fluctuations in mood or other unwanted emotional responses to fake news.”
What You Can Do: Expert Tips
Reality is a matter of perception and information shapes reality. To shift reality with false information is destabilizing— and can have serious ramifications on mental health—leading to significant anxiety and more. We live in a highly connected world, it doesn’t take much to tip over into instability or even chaos. The good news—and this isn’t fake—is that we can take some steps to safeguard ourselves from fake news.
- Don’t Believe Everything You Read
“The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by questioning we may come upon the truth.” Sage words that ring true today from Pierre Abelard, a medieval French philosopher, teacher and theologian, written in 1120. Serve as your own fact checker. Some simple things can help here: check the date of the article (just because it comes up at the top of the search results page doesn’t mean it’s current information), one is to serve as your own fact checker. But what’s the best way to do this? Consult the experts.
- Do Your Own Fact-Checking
Yes, we know that you’re busy, and debunking fake news takes time. So, go to organizations that dedicate themselves to this kind of investigatory work. Their mission: when misinformation obscures the truth, they lift the veil via fact-checking, original investigative reporting, and providing evidence-based analysis with documented sources. Here are some of the most respected: FactCheck.org, Snopes.com, and PolitiFact.com. If you read something that you suspect may not be true, it’s likely that one of these organizations has fact-checked the piece—just type the title of the article or some keywords from the piece into their search bar to see if it has been reviewed.
- Check Your Biases
Yes, we get that this is not easy. According to Dr. Pozios, confirmation bias leads us to put more stock in stories that confirm our beliefs and opinions and to discount or reject information that does not. “We have a tendency as humans to accept information we already believe and discount information we already disbelieve. This concept is important to be aware of because it helps us understand how social media can contribute to echo chambers of opinion,” Dr. Pozios explains. So, the next time you’re aghast at some social media post about a politician you oppose, take a moment to pause and question what you’ve read (see the first tip, above).
- Keep Your Sense of Humor
One of the most powerful and positive defense strategies we have is humor.6 Late night comedy and political satire won’t change the news but can help reduce the stress and anxiety brought on by it. Laughter is free medicine, so laugh a lot.
- Channel those Feelings
Turning your feelings of stress into action can help. March in a protest, start a petition, volunteer for a cause you believe in. Or, if you are feeling particularly moved, run for office—like the many female candidates that ran for office in 2018, and won.
This new era of fake news is not going away—but we have the power to adapt. Social media stressing you out? Unplug. Is the news too constant and confusing? Turn it off. And who knows, maybe technology can come to the rescue. It’s too soon to tell, but the National Science Foundation 7 is funding research into a program that will enable digital devices to purge fake news. Stay tuned.