Stop Believing Everything That You Read Online

Since the dawn of email, people have been sharing totally false information with wild abandon. Remember those chain letters that promised if you’d only forward them to umpteen people, Bill Gates might donate a fraction of his fortune to your personal bank account? If you’re active on Facebook, you may have seen that old gem’s evolved cousin:

Facebook commentImage via Thrillist

Despite ample available information to the contrary, many social media users still fall for this post urging everyone to share.

What’s the Harm in Sharing?

The above Facebook privacy hoax begins with “Better safe than sorry”—a sentiment that indicates the best of intentions. After all, can any harm come from being extra careful?

In that particular case, the worst that might happen is that you appear a little silly. However, sharing without first taking the time to confirm facts isn’t caring—and can sometimes have some serious consequences.

Fake iPhone adWarning: This will destroy your phone! Image via Reddit.

One recent (and not-so-harmless) hoax that was widely-circulated is the above “tip” that your iPhone 6 could be quickly charged by popping it into the microwave. Worse, people fell for the hoax, causing damage that definitely wasn’t covered by Apple’s standard warranty.

Tweet of an Apple iPhone on fireImage via The Daily Mail​​

The problem was so widespread that multiple news sources wrote articles warning iPhone users not to try zapping their devices for a quick charge. While the gullibility of those featured might make you cringe, what’s worse is the sentiment shared by many commenters: If you were silly enough to believe the hoax, then you deserve the consequences.

Some “Facts” Can Be Life Threatening

If you’re apt to believe everything you read online, your smartphone isn’t the only thing at risk of roasting. Recently shared on my Facebook feed was an article that boldly claimed:

“Researchers at the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based nonprofit, released their annual report claiming nearly half of the 500 most popular sunscreen products may actually increase the speed at which malignant cells develop and spread skin cancer because they contain vitamin A and its derivatives, retinol and retinyl palmitate.”

The article, which capitalizes on our celebrity obsession with the title “How Supermodel Gisele Bundchen ‘Infuriated Cancer Experts” goes on to assert that sunscreen might not be a necessity after all, claiming that the Food and Drug Administration has been carelessly misleading consumers for years.

Before you toss your bottles of SPF and grab a pitchfork, know that a little extra research into the Environmental Working Group (EWG) paints a less-than-credible picture. 

Perry Romanowski of the Chemists Corner, a blog for and by cosmetic chemists, fires back at the EWG with ample evidence to disprove their claims in “Why the EWG Skin Deep Database is Still a Dubious Source.” Further, Romanowski claims that the EWG stirs controversy for profit, directing readers to an Amazon Affiliate store to find alternative products that they claim are safer than traditional SPF lotions.

Other sources support the stance that EWG’s fearmongering is really to turn a profit, including Forbes, with an article that’s so chock-full of quotes from chemists who are peeved at EWG’s claims we couldn’t begin to pick just one.

What’s more, when you consider that each year there are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incidence of cancers of the breast, prostate, lung and colon—90 percent of which could be avoided with sunscreen—you can understand why those chemists are so irate.

See Also: How Confirmation Bias Makes You a Target for Scams

With infinite examples of falsehoods available online, one has to wonder why we’re so gullible?

Why We Believe (Almost) Everything That We Read

Psychological scientist Stephan Lewandowsky and a team of colleagues at the University of Western Australia explore that question in their report, “Misinformation and its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing” published by the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

Lewandowsky addresses heavy topics, such as the belief that vaccines cause childhood autism or that global warming is a myth. The report attempts to illuminate why we latch onto certain ideas despite there being plenty of proof to the contrary—and consequences to our willful ignorance.

His conclusion? When it comes to truth-seeking, it turns out that we’re hardwired to be lazy. Or, at least, that rejecting information requires more cognitive effort than we’re willing to put out.

“Weighing the plausibility and the source of a message is cognitively more difficult than simply accepting that the message is true—it requires additional motivational and cognitive resources. If the topic isn't very important to you or you have other things on your mind, misinformation is more likely to take hold.”

Basically, when we’re forced to choose between fact-checking a statement or believing what we’re told, our brains are predisposed to take the path of least resistance and accept the snap decision.

When we do take the time to thoughtfully evaluate incoming information, our existing biases play a role as well. Called confirmation bias, we’re more likely to believe information that fits with things you already believe, or believed by those who agree with you on similar topics.

Related: Cognitive Biases: How Your Brain Affects What You Buy

Get Ready to Get Angry

It’s one thing to sit back and believe information without fact checking, but what makes us so likely to share?

Taking a look at what makes some articles go viral while others go unnoticed, Jonah Berger studied titles on New York Times Most Emailed List. His report found that the number one predictor of an article shooting to the top of social consciousness isn’t how fascinating the facts, but how angry it makes the reader. 

While anger is likely to elicit the most shares, any extreme emotion will do. That includes topics that are really funny, arousing, anxiety-inducing, or, like the EWG’s sunscreen article, likely to make you afraid.

When we read information that makes us feel something strong, we’re far more likely to share without taking a minute to check facts. But, when you think about it, isn’t that exactly the type of information that deserves to be checked?

How to Make Your Brain Care About the Truth

As a species, we’re really great at inventing shortcuts. However, you don’t have to join the Skeptic Society to stop misinformation from sticking. You don’t even need to fact-check every piece of information that flits across your radar.

The easiest method is to start by recognizing when something you read or hear makes you feel strongly, be it anger, fear, anxiety, or self-righteousness.

When you recognize that a piece of information is playing into those emotions, you can practice thinking critically with these steps:

  • Consider context. Ask yourself where this information is from and what it was in relation to. Then, consider if the source is objective.

  • Check other sources. A quick Google search on any controversial topic will often reveal a wealth of information, but who can you believe? Universities and institutions are often the most credible sources. (We’ll give others soon.)

  • Think of the underlying message. What’s the point of the information being shared—is it attempt to urge you to action? Consider what the source is asking you to do, and what they might get out of it.

  • Reconsider your own beliefs. If you notice that information appeals to you because it agrees with something you’ve long held to be true, be open to challenging your own opinion.

Fact-Checking Resources

While the internet might be full of misinformation, there are thankfully plenty of resources devoted to separating falsehoods from facts.

One of my favorite is Snopes, which has been helping critical thinkers sift through modern myths since 1995—including that previously-mentioned chain email promising a piece of Mr. Gate’s pie. Other fact-checking sites include:

Then, of course, there’s the ample articles and reviews right here at HighYa—all dedicated to helping you make better decisions about everything the internet has to offer.

Why Bother Checking Facts?

Sure, we all like to recite fun tidbits at parties. But when you boil it all down, isn’t making better decisions what learning new information is all about?

Whether the topic at hand is sunscreen or privacy settings, the information we choose to believe creates a framework that shapes our actions—which can directly affect everything from your health to your wallet.

From that perspective, fact-checking isn’t about proving to others that they’re wrong or you’re right. It’s about learning what’s best for you. And, isn’t that worth a little extra effort?

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.

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