Fake News: How Engineers Can Break the Cycle

Fake news, a byproduct of the digital age, is virulent and dangerous. Here’s what you need to know.

The term “fake news” has taken hold in recent years. Historically, news came from trusted sources. In the past, information gatekeepers such as journalists and media outlets followed stringent codes of conduct and practice. With the exponential rise of independent internet publishing, editorial standards are changing.

People have greater access to information than ever before. Social media and countless webpages force readers to sift through thousands of pieces of content for themselves. Fake news and deeply biased stories misinform the public and can influence people’s views, thoughts, and actions. 

What’s the harm in a little misinformation? Aren’t people smart enough to figure out what is true on their own?

The harm is that fake news is usually not an accident. It is cleverly crafted social engineering designed to fool everyone that encounters it. Online publishers earn lots of money publishing content that pushes a sponsored agenda, creates hysteria and confusion, or influences public opinion. They can even adopt similar names and web addresses to mimic reputable organisations and trick viewers.

Taking Opinion Over Fact

Fake news is potent because it plays on the natural tendency for confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the inclination to gravitate towards information that confirms a preconceived idea. Stanford researchers performed a study about bias, under the guise of a suicide study. Study participants were presented with false information. Despite later revealing the deception, study participants did not change their minds based on clear evidence. One of the researchers noted, “Once formed, impressions are remarkably perseverant.” Numerous subsequent studies have confirmed and elaborated on these findings. People tend to stick to their bias, even when presented with contradictory evidence. In online environments, people are constantly bombarded with content that is merely opinion and not substantiated with fact. When the true facts are revealed, the initially framed opinion or deceptive misdirection persists.  Despite repeated examples however, there is no quick fix to this evolving global public crisis. 

Recently Facebook has been under fire for how quickly fake news spreads on their platform. However, in a world where one person’s truth is another person’s fake news, how can engineers train machines to filter content? People like to think of themselves as rational, but emotions govern many personal decisions. Humans have a bad habit of assuming that what is familiar is true or “safe”. Today, the burden of proof is no longer on the content creator but lies with the reader.

How Can Fake News Affect Engineering?

The engineering profession operates within a fact-based industry. The laws of physics and the science of the natural world surrounding mankind are not the realm of opinion, half-truths, or “little white lies”.  Without proper and factual data, disaster can strike. An engineer’s responsibility is to ensure the accuracy and relevance of all data and to test and retest hypotheses. Engineers are natural-born fact-checkers. In addition to a strong sense of curiosity and well-practised problem-solving abilities, engineers are trained myth-busters! 

Although engineers are well equipped for fighting fake news, they are only human. Fake news feeds upon individual biases. Misleading or inaccurate content can fuel previously held ideas and reinforce personal bias. Some scientific studies show evidence that fake news can even create false memories, particularly when it enforces cognitive bias. According to a self-reported Hootsuite survey, Australians spend an average of 5 hours and 34 minutes each day on the internet. That’s a lot of content! Time spent online might seem disconnected from the workday, but the content we consume becomes a part of us. Here’s how to find credible sources of information.

Take on Fake News with a Scientific Approach

Examine content with the same scientific approach applied to engineering work. 

Self-examine Biases

Bias inhibits impartial observation and taints problem-solving skills. Being bias-free is impossible, but self-awareness of tendencies helps to inoculate a degree of the worst effects of prejudicial tendencies. Without awareness, a person cannot overcome subjective predisposition.

Judge Credibility 

Find out who is authoring and publishing the content. What bias may they have in reporting this information? Dig deeper.


A surprising number of social media users share content without reading it in its entirety. According to a study from Columbia University, only two out of five social media users will click through and read articles. The majority of shares are from people that liked the headline and summary of the information. 

Dissect Disinformation

Be sceptical. Writers and editors design headlines to catch attention. Some publish wildly inaccurate headlines for the sake of clicks and resultant advertising revenue. Look closely at links within websites. It is a common trick to create a lookalike link to a well-known website or an established source. Check for authentic images. Photos can be edited or taken out of context. Search engines can track down the source of the image. 

When in doubt, fact check the evidence and citations. Inconsistencies highlight the need to reconsider the information. Do a quick search to see if what other news outlets are covering the story. Are they reporting the same facts? Verification takes time, but it helps prevent fake news from propagating through your content reel. 

How Engineers Are Bringing Down Fake News

Whether you take the direct approach to battle fake news, or simply fact-check a story within your expertise, engineers can make a big difference in the battle against misinformation.

Anti-Fake News Plug-Ins

Rohan Phadte and Ash Bhat, applied engineering students at Berkeley, applied creative problem-solving skills to identify fake news. They created a browser plug-in called SurfSafe. The browser plug-in checks online images for doctoring. The software tags modified images with warnings. They later released BotCheck.me, another browser extension. This plug-in flags political spam bots and posts with an accuracy claimed to be 97.5%. 

That Smells Fishy

Dr. Alistair Dove is not an engineer, but he is a parasitologist at an aquarium. However, his myth-busting action deserves a gold star in the problem-solving hall of fame. A few years ago, a SCUBA diving concept called the Triton went viral. All over social media, SCUBA lovers and diving enthusiasts pleaded to get their hands on this (comparatively) minimalistic breathing apparatus. However, Dr Dove blasted this possibility with his open letter to Deep Sea News. By breaking down the mathematical impossibility of the Triton, he quashed the false article and saved many SCUBA fans from heartbreak.

There Goes the Neighbourhood

Whoever wrote the headline “Feed Your Entire Neighbourhood With This New Garden Idea From IKEA” probably meant no harm. In fact, they probably thought they were simply putting an interesting spin on a gardening concept. However, the Growroom never claimed to be able to provide sustenance for the ‘hood. In fact, the self-described “urban farm pavilion” does not mention output in the promotional literature. Mike Grusin, an engineer and professor, teaches his students to challenge anything they’re told. Using the provided measurements, they were able to calculate that it would take thirteen of the urban gardens to feed just one person. That’s a far cry from a neighbourhood.

What’s an Engineer to Do?

The average person spends over two hours a day on social media. That’s a lot of content. So, by default that is a lot of content to fact-check. Although some websites devoted to debunking have cropped up, there still isn’t a great way to check everything automatically. Instead of mindlessly clicking the “Share” button, think about how this information impacts others. 

Feeling a bit more ambitious?

Why don’t you tackle a news story or two and see if the science and technology check out? 

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