Already, just days into the presidency of Donald Trump, the defining theme is one of “fake news”. In a world where information is everywhere, it’s becoming difficult to know what to believe anymore.
The reason fake news has become so prevalent is that Trump has been elected in a political climate of fear.
Trump’s campaign focused on people’s deeply held fears of ISIS and Islamic terrorism, economic hardships, Mexican immigration and the supposedly deteriorating standing of the U.S. in the world.
Fear is now coming from all sides of politics. For example, progressives are letting us know that Trump’s presidency makes nuclear war more likely and moves America in the direction of fascism.
The problem is that when we live in a climate of fear, fake news proliferates more easily. This happens because when we’re fearful, we respond to and share sensationalist articles stoking our fear rather than taking the time to critically analyze the information in front of us.
The fear isn’t likely to go away. Political leaders, pundits and media networks will continue producing this kind of media while there’s a demand for it.
It’s therefore clear that as citizens we need to take responsibility for countering this trend so we can build a movement based on truth and reason which cuts across political ideologies. We need to keep the power of independent thought alive.
What, then, is the way forward?
To answer this question, we’ll first take a brief look at the psychology of fear and how that results in manipulation of the people.
The psychology of fear and manipulation
The latest we’ve seen in political fear mongering isn’t the first time this has happened in American politics. Jimmy Carter’s ads in 1980, for example, featured people in the street saying that Reagan scares them, and George Bush ran an ad in 1988 suggesting that Michael Dukakis as president would result in prisoners getting weekend passes to go raping and pillaging.
Research on the psychology of fear tells us that most of our judgments and behaviors are the result of the subconscious, emotions and instinct, rather than cold hard logic. We simply end up rationalizing decisions after they’ve been made.
Fear results in continually being on the lookout for signs of danger, and shapes our emotions and the ideas surfacing from our sub-conscious. Research suggests that when we are in this state, we are very quick to judge those signs. We don’t take the time to get the facts, instead making snap judgements.
It makes sense that fake news proliferates in a political climate of fear. There is a demand for sensationalist news that caters to our emotions, and there’s a lot of money at stake. In a competitive media landscape, networks are incentivized to continually push out articles and stories that gets clicks and shares, without due care and consideration being put into verifying the truth of news stories.
You may think it’s happening on just one side of politics, but this isn’t the case. Liberals accuse the right of producing fake news as much as conservatives are saying the same of progressives.
When you live in a state of fear, the result is that we instinctively turn to our tribe to provide us with a sense of power. One way to get protection from our tribe is to adopt and espouse their beliefs so we are considered to be members in good standing.
What happens is that we end up buying into the fear beliefs of our tribe. It happens equally on all sides of politics.
The result of a political climate of fear is that more of us are engaging in tribal like behavior. We are more susceptible to fake news, and end up bandying together with each other and around our favorite media networks.
When fear reigns supreme, the stage is set for mass manipulation through fake news.
Where do we go from here?
It doesn’t matter what your political persuasion is. When the political climate is one of fear, and the media caters to it with sensationalist and fake news, then you have a responsibility to get yourself into a state where you are not as susceptible to it.
In fact, we would go so far as to say that in an age when information is more freely available than ever before, it’s your duty to think for yourself.
The alternative is to be manipulated by slogans and mantras that may resonate with how we feel, but do little to advance the cause of truth and honesty in modern day society.
We uncovered a rare video from Timothy Leary that we think makes this point very clearly. Leary was an author, futurist and Harvard psychologist who billed himself as a “performance philosopher”. In the video he implores his audience to think for themselves and question authority.
When you think for yourself and question authority, then you are less imprisoned by other people’s ideas and better able to come up with your own.
This is critical in an age of fake news and political spin. The politicians and pundits we see on television and the internet are appealing to our emotions of fear and anxiety, recycling ideas and encouraging tribe like behavior.
Only when we search for the truth within ourselves, without appealing to the authority of others, will be be able to free ourselves from the grip of fear that is taking hold.
How to think independently
The best way to think independently is to practice coming up with your own ideas.
This is why we created Ideapod, a social network for idea sharing (you’re reading this on Ideapod’s blog). Ideapod is a place where it’s really easy to create an idea to share with a community of people ready to give you some constructive feedback.
In the years of working on Ideapod, we’ve learnt a few things about what you can do to hone your skills of thinking independently in order to come up with new ideas. When you exercise the ideas muscle in your brain, you’ll be thinking for yourself and less susceptible to all of the fear being spread through the media.
Here are five things you can do immediately to practice thinking more independently. And of course, the best way is to join Ideapod now and share your first idea, and then wait for the positive feedback.
1. Disconnect from sources of conventional thinking
It’s essential to reduce the media you’re consuming and replacing it with alternative sources. It doesn’t mean becoming a contrarian thinker, but rather creating a diverse stream of information coming your way.
2. Immerse yourself in experiences that conflict with your current perspective
The experiences you immerse yourself in may come from diving into a new culture, or from reading a book you wouldn’t ordinarily spend time on.
3. Watch the process from a distance
We talk about this a lot here at The Power of Ideas (Ideapod’s blog). You want to become the witness to your own thoughts. This means watching your thoughts from a distance, without associating yourself too heavily with them. Alan Watts says it best when he suggests we need to stop placing so much emphasis on our thoughts.
4. Randomize your sensory inputs
Stop walking the same path all the time. Change the music you’re listening to regularly. Stand still from time to time and see what it feels like. Feel the ground you’re walking on. Embrace all your senses and see what kinds of ideas emerge.
5. Practice disbelief
Instead of assuming that the truths you’re being told (or even arriving at yourself), learn to instinctively question everything until you’ve confirmed there is reality through your experience or your reason.