Fake news, the readiness to believe a lie

VP Mphoko

VP Mphoko

Nick Mangwana View From The Diaspora

People have a propensity to look for that which confirms their own prejudices, ignoring that which contradicts their beliefs. Social media is now a cacophony of misinformation, and with a paranoid and even superstitious opposition, God help us.

There has been a tsunami of fake news in the Zimbabwe polity. Something untrue is spread like an airborne virus in a crowded enclosure that it creeps the straight thinking as to where all this will end.

Some of it is quite ridiculous that you would not expect any keen follower of Zimbabwean politics to fall victim to something so clearly false.

But surprisingly they do.

They don’t just do that but they even go on to give the fake news legs by passing it on with very adverse commentary. There are too many examples out there.

Dr Lazarus Dokora and Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko have been ready victims of such. VP Mnangagwa recently joined in with some fake news about him saying that he is asking for $100 taxation for each Diasporan.

Clearly there are trolls around the world deliberately and fraudulently attacking key figures and institutions in the Government of Zimbabwe. This can be ignored with serious consequences for that Government’s image.

Most of the time one would just laugh at the news which can easily be interpreted as political satire until one discovers the number of people who would be so emotional and disturbed by it because they believe it.

Then the question is why a normally discerning person would suddenly become so gullible to be susceptible to fake news? The answer is located in what is known as confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is defined as “a tendency to seek or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s pre-conceptions”. When one has this tendency, they latch on to any evidence that supports their already existing belief or position.

They discard or disregard anything that seems to reinterpret or disconfirm their already held prejudices. This columnist contends that it is this concept that makes people very susceptible to believing fake news.

When one so much wants something to be true they stop filtering it and take it as such; hook, line and sinker. Let’s imagine that a certain politician has a reputation as a hardliner and a man of immense cruelty. He falls out with a political rivalry and some tragedy befalls that rival.

There are some who would ignore all the evidence that suggests that this tragedy was just that but seek to confirm that it is the reputedly cruel man that did the deed.

Any little thing that will be latched on as irrefutable evidence of that person’s culpability.

Of course the reason behind this is just that wishful thinking that makes one pick only those pieces of information that make them feel good about themselves by confirming that they were not wrong.

Let us broaden it a bit more. Since 2000 Zimbabwe has had challenging rainfall patterns and there are a number of years when there was food shortage because of drought, including last year.

Even though this drought and El Niño (in the latest case) had affected a lot of countries, to a lot of people this was just confirmation that the land reform programme had caused starvation in Zimbabwe. No matter how much one proffered contrary evidence, this was downplayed because it did not confirm the prejudices which they held.

Fast forward to 2016/7. The Government doled out equipment procured from Brazil to the people as part of draught power. A lot of schemes were rolled out to the communities, especially the resettled farmers. These implements were meant to empower them to be able to resist the drought and be more productive.

The lack of financial sector support had to be circumvented. That policy was probably another success. Unfortunately, we don’t hear much about it. But if anyone takes time to speak to the folks that sing praises to it, one would realise what can be done with just a $98 million facility if managed with prudence.

But why are we not hearing about it? To this policy add the efficiently managed Command Agriculture and the helpful rains.

Logic would follow that if the government was to blame for the food shortage, then it should be credited with the bumper harvest. But no, the bumper harvest is now said to be an act of God. How does that work? The evidence is disconfirmation evidence so it has to be discarded as it is not confirming their biases.

This is a concept that when a human being has adopted an opinion, he will channel all his energy to support and confirm that opinion. If he finds anything that supports a contrary view, instead of revisiting that view, he discard the evidence.

Giving further examples would help but there is the risk of being thrown into a faction within the ruling party. In fact, because people already have an opinion of which faction they believe this columnist belongs to, this will just buttress their confirmation bias.

Even though they are wrong. Anyway, let’s go back to examples; let those who want to confirm their pre-held positions have a good day.

What we are facing in Zimbabwe is a preferential treatment of news item as evidence of a pre-held belief. But this is not all.

Last week we wrote about the paranoia held by the opposition. Just because the Government has given ZEC money, it was taken as confirmation that the Government had started rigging 2018 elections. This has consumed the opposition in such a way that they have forgotten how to campaign.

They have now deployed their usual self-deception mode. It is this same self-deception that made some believe the incredulous mutating ballots theory.

Readers have to forgive us for always coming back to this, but it was the most ridiculous excuse ever given by a grown man. Anyway, let’s go back to self-deception. Some say it is like a drug. It does two things.

The first is it zombifies whoever indulges in it. The second is that it is addictive and once you have started taking it, you will see nothing else but that which you want to believe. Thus in these cases a normal psychological phenomenon of cognitive bias becomes a pathological and self-destructive affliction.

Even if President Mugabe comes out today and says there is no $15 billion missing, those who have always believed there was looting of astronomical quantities would not believe it.

Yet they were ready to believe him when he said the other but can’t believe him when he says something different. If on the same day he spoke about the $15 billion he had also said that the Government has created 1,5 million jobs, they would have chosen to believe the missing $15 billion but not the 1,5 million jobs.

How can it not be self-destructive when some choose to turn a blind eye to what everyone else can see? They choose to believe a lie as if it’s the truth. Those who dwell in spiritual realms can even say that these people fall under such a self-deluding spell which is like an evil spirit.

In fact, the Bible in 2 Thessalonians 2:11 says of these; “For this reason, God will send them a strong delusion that they should believe a lie.”

One can rephrase this and say, for this reason, God will send them a powerful delusion that they end up believing fake news. But in scientific terms we simply call it confirmation bias.

Someone surely sits on their computer, starts fabricating a lie disguised as news. They even put quotation marks and attribute this manufactured nonsense to their high profile victim. A captioned picture is even appended.

The people who do this are mischief-makers (nhubu). They get their buzz from it. But there are also political activists on a demonisation expedition.

The problem is those that choose to believe it because of their own confirmation bias. The other victims of this fake news are the real principled journalists out there whose territory has been intruded into by purveyors of mischief.

Some Facebook pages now run fake news alerts. But helpful as this may be, what is more helpful is for the consumer to be less gullible and institutions to be on alert to come up with a counter narrative.

As we trot towards 2018 this will only get worse. Political parties have to be ready to put the record straight. Ignoring it is not an option. Coincidentally, there are more manufacturers of fake news on the opposite side than there are in Zanu-PF.

In a bid to serve self-interests, even those that know that what they have received are lies, they will peddle it all the same in the spirit of self-interest. That’s a deliberate “echo chamber” is created to misinform and keep on bombarding with misinformation until even those not susceptible to this confirmation bias believe it.

People have a propensity to look for that which confirms their own prejudices, ignoring that which contradicts their beliefs. Social media is now a cacophony of misinformation, and with a paranoid and even superstitious opposition, God help us.

Fake news is like a drug. It gives a lot of pleasure to the consumer. But all decisions made by factoring in an illusion are flawed.

There is nothing wrong in performing a due diligence on anything one reads or hears before passing it on.

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