Tuesday | 14 April | 2020
By Melodie Veldhuizen
We are confronted by fake news about a range of topical matters on social media every day. As was to be expected, this tendency quickly reared its head soon after the outbreak of the corona virus pandemic and fake news spread almost as fast as the virus itself.
The emotional impact of fake news
Dr Vasilis K Pozios, a forensic psychiatrist and an expert on the impact of media on our mental health, explained as follows in an interview with Psycom: The idea behind fake news is to manipulate the public opinion. It is presented in such a way that it will evoke an emotional reaction from the reader or viewer. It is usually of an inflammatory nature and can elicit feelings of anger, distrust, anxiety and even depression. It can even cause frustration, especially because the viewer or reader feels powerless when he or she realises that the distibutor is trying to manipulate his or her opinion. When we are confronted by fake news, we think with our “emotional” brain instead of our “rational” brain. We must know what type of information triggers our emotional mind and learn to rather use our rational brain so that we can handle fake news more effectively.
Juliana Coetzer, a psychotherapist, says that fake news causes fear and anxiety in people. According to her it forces people to take action. “When we don’t see the danger visually in front of us, such as a virus, we need to ‘feel’ something about it. And when we experience or ‘feel’ fear, it urges us toward self-protection. If the virus had been a pack of hungry lions, it would probably not have been a problem to stay home.” She emphasises that fake news makes the situation a hundred times worse and therefore the fear is more intense. “People incite each other, especialy by distributing fake news and this contributes to the chaos. The human brain’s function is there to protect you and it always thinks that you are in danger, and secretes unnecessary stress hormones, which, in the long run is not good for you.”
Ilanie Möller, educational psychologist and pastoral counsellor, says conflicting information creates confusion, anxiety and uncertainty. You become panic-stricken because in an intimidating situation you are inclined to switch to a fight-or-flee reaction. You brain tells your body: there is a life-threatening lion behind you and you must fight or flee and your body is filled with stress hormones so that you can react for the sake of physical survival. But in the case of fake news, which causes anxiety, you do not use the adrenalin to physically run away or fight and this causes an excess of adrenalin in your body, which makes your heart beat faster, quickens your breathing and raises your blood pressure.
How can I react effectively to fake news?
Dr Pozios gives the following hints to steel ourselves against mood swings and other undesirable emotional reactions caused by fake news.
- Do not believe everything you read, verify the information and check contradicting statements
“ The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by questioning we may come upon the truth.” These wise words swere spoke as far back as 1120 by Pierre Abelard, a French philosopher, teacher and theologian. We are inclined to accept news as true if we already believe it and to reject what we do not want to believe. It is as if one is grateful to see something in writing that confirms your own opinion. You can check the information. It takes time and effort, but it will give you more piece of mind.
- Hang on to your sense of humour
One of the most powerful and positive defense mechanisms at man’s disposal, is a sense of humour. Watch a humoristic DVD or a movie on TV. Laughing is free medicine, so laugh when you get the opportunity. Even if it does not change the situation, it will relieve stres sand anxiety.
Juliana Coetzer also reckons that it is important to test your sources before simply believing and sharing it. She says people are lazy thinkers and do not think before accepting fake news as the truth. According to her we should handle fake news responsibly and not blame the person who creates the sensation to his own advantage. It is the reader’s responsibility to be informed, to keep up with the truth and to select sources discretely.
Ilanie Möller confirms that we do have access to reliable information and therefore have no reason to be ignorant. She says if you are not sure of what is reliable and what not, you should ask the opinion of somebody you trust or compare different websites’ sources of information with each other. Immediately get rid of all unreliable information. Especially videos sand WhatsApp messages shared on groups should be treated with caution. She says people who become confused or upset easily should try to avoid fake news as far as possible. Rather consult websites and news providers with a good reputation for supplying correct information. Listen to interviews with specialists on the subject. In the case of the corona virus a medical specialist such as a virologist who had intensive training and experience in the field would be a reliable source of information. She advises people to keep fake news from children and the elderly and to distinguish on their behalf what is true and what not and then to give them the correct information.
If necessary, get proffesional help. Most mental-health workers are available via Skype. Also call the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) on 0800 456 789 24 hours).
Coetzer, Juliana. Psychotherapist. Hermanus.
Möller, Ilanie. Educational psychologist and pastoral counsellor. Vita Nova Counselling Centre.
Also read the article at https://corona.org.za/koronavirus-die-gevare-van-fopnuus-en-hoe-om-dit-uit-te-ken/.
* All information was correct at the time of publication.