• Team Nolmë Labs

Can Mindfulness Resolve the Plague of Fake News?

Updated: Mar 26

- Ankita Mahajan

Mindfulness has become a very popular concept in the past few years and is almost always associated with meditation. Although most of us know what mindfulness meditation is, we rarely know what mindfulness, without the suffix of meditation means. Simply put, mindfulness refers to a state of mind which is anchored in the present, without any influences from the past or the future. Meditation is simply a vehicle for reaching this goal state of mindfulness. There have been multiple conceptualizations of mindfulness over the years, but Eastern mindfulness, which focuses on achieving mindfulness through meditation, and Western mindfulness, which focuses on attaining mindfulness non – meditatively, are the two main schools of thought.


Western mindfulness is heavily influenced by the works of Ellen Langer and her colleagues. Langer defines mindfulness as a state in which we use all of our mental resources to actively engage with our present environment. It refers to viewing every situation, irrespective of how often we have already engaged with it, as if it were new every time we are exposed to it.


Take the example of the routine question ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ you get asked at family events. You have been asked this question since you were a child. The question has been the same, the people asking the question have been the same, but your answer has been changing over the years. Your answer keeps changing because the context in which you understand the question keeps changing, and will always keep changing. So when Langer talks about engaging in situations as if they were new, it is because every time you engage with them, they are new because the context has changed since the last time.


For the most part of our lives, we tend to apply the same formula that worked for us once in the past to all similar situations that may arise later, without accounting for the fact that what may have been true then, may not be true now. Such a state of engaging with situations based solely on past experience without accounting for the current context is known as mindlessness, which is the polar opposite of mindfulness.


Langer gives an example of how she had learned in school that all horses were herbivores. But later on, she came across a horse handler who fed his horse meat. When she had this experience, she realized that nothing we know about anything is absolutely true. There is always a chance that what we know may be wrong. It is when we recognize this uncertainty of our knowledge that we start attending to the novel aspects of any situation, irrespective of how routine or mundane it is. For instance, if I were to believe my school teachers to have taught me absolutely everything about computers, I would still be relying on that outdated knowledge to help me deal with current problems. That would be a terrible mistake, because knowledge, irrespective of whether it’s related to computers or any other aspect of life, is dynamic and ever-growing. Past oriented knowledge, regardless of how helpful it was then, always faces the possibility of becoming redundant in the current context. Recognizing the fallibility of past knowledge and constantly updating it to match the current context, is one of the aspects of Langerian mindfulness.


Sticking to mindless mental shortcuts based on past experiences save us a lot of mental energy while making mundane decisions, like which bus to take to work. As handy as they are in certain situations, these mental shortcuts, also known as heuristics, can prove to be troublesome when applied to situations that warrant spending some of our priceless mental energy. Thus, to be mindful is to be aware of when to rely on heuristics and biases and when to bypass them, when more deliberate judgement is advisable.


One such arena where deliberate judgement is required is social media. The spread of misinformation and fake news has only increased in the past few years. This is only compounded by the findings of a Reuters survey which state that around 52 per cent Indian users of WhatsApp and Facebook respectively relied on these social media platforms in 2019, where there are no regulated validity checks for what is posted, for getting news.


Shortcuts for the our brain

Humans have been famously touted by cognitive psychologists to be ‘cognitive misers’. Whenever possible, we like to expend as little mental energy as possible in processing information. This is where heuristics come into the picture.


By relying on these thumb rules based on past experience, we save ourselves the trouble of processing information from scratch every time. We are exposed to vast amounts of information on various social media platforms. Sitting and thoroughly evaluating each piece of information, which is mostly made up of photos and stories put up by friends, would be a monumental waste of time and mental energy. Hence, predictably, we rely on heuristics to evaluate posts. The use of such heuristics as the number of likes, comments and who has posted the post are relatively harmless when we are scrolling through photos and stories put up by friends. However, if we were to start applying these same heuristics to evaluate news articles, it would be problematic, because then we would be positively or negatively evaluating them based on thumb rules instead of the content of the article. The aforementioned Reuters survey also reports that Indian social media users’ reliance on social cues such as comments, images and sender of the message is higher than in any other digital market. 40 percent of the WhatsApp news users who participated in that survey reported that they had forwarded news stories in the past week. India is also the largest market for WhatsApp with the most number of forwards in the world.


The heavy and mindless reliance on social cues and heuristics to determine the credibility of news articles and in turn forwarding them could be one of the ways in which misinformation and fake news spread. This is quite like Langerian mindlessness where we are functioning based only on a single perspective that has been developed as a result of past experience.


While it may have been true that media houses were considered to be solid and credible a few years ago, the situation has drastically changed in the past couple of years. Continuing to use the set of heuristics related to the reputation that media houses enjoyed a few years ago to evaluate posts shared on social media today, when the context and perspective have changed dramatically, is a classically mindless trap that most of us, social media users have fallen into. While heavy reliance on heuristics is not the only factor that causes the spread of misinformation and fake news, most research in this realm has been in the foreign context. Since WhatsApp is the most used social media platform in India while Facebook and Twitter are widely studied in these researches, their findings are hard to generalize to the Indian context.


The topic of misinformation and fake news has gathered momentum on an international level, and as of now, no regulations have been put in place to avoid or at least curb these phenomena. While the onus of handling this situation lies with both social media platforms and national governments, some responsibility also lies with us, the users, as we are the ones who, inevitably, share such articles. Mindful engagement with social media platforms may seem like a feeble and simplistic solution to this multifaceted problem. However, we, the users are responsible for nothing more than our own actions and governing them mindfully is perhaps the only thing we can do to contain this problem.


Ankita Mahajan is a research assistant at Nolmë Labs. She is a Master's student studying clinical psychology at SPPU and enjoys listening to Hindustani classical music with her pet cat. She hopes to pursue a career as a practising clinical psychologist.

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