Conspiracies, Fake News and my Role as an Interculturalist
The recent U.S. election has exposed the disastrous impact of conspiracies and fake news, way beyond its national border. Like many others, interculturalists were deeply involved, and rightfully so. Now that the situation has much settled down, I’d love to share some insights and reflection of what has created a storm that will probably still influence our societies for years to come.
At the beginning, it was shock and disgust. I was speechless to find out that some people I know so well or admire so much could so hopelessly fall for fake news and conspiracies. When I corrected them, I was first ignored, then shown sympathy because I was “so blind”, and this quickly turned into impatience and annoyance because I was “the others”. Being pushed to the edge, I took a step back and forced myself to have some reflection.
I had to remind myself that my mission is to unite and bridge differences. Outside the training room, it’s easier said than done, because I become an actor on the battlefield. Despite my profession to be a mediator, when the attack is on my own values, the natural reaction is to curse, reject, confront, and condemn those ugly comments and fake news from white supremacists, neo-Nazis, right-wing extremists, conspiracy believers, or in some cases, fervent Trump supporters. It could be the right thing to do, but here is the question I asked myself: as an interculturalist, is that the best thing to do?
And so, I realized, this profession demands me to hold my judgement. While I do have the right to be angry and disgusted, the first step is to understand what it is and what causes it. So I spent a good number of days researching on fake news and conspiracies. The knowledge I gained – which I’m going to share with you – stopped me just one step from plunging into a dangerous spiral of aggravated emotional clash with those around me who believe and transmit fake news.
So, what are conspiracies and fake news?
Here is what I learned:
Conspiracies generally have three “hallmarks”: (1) They imply a secret network of people or organizations with (2) evil purposes such as domination, and (3) spread around with fake news.
Many conspiracies are the result of a blame game in which a cultural group becomes the scapegoat, justifying the reason why a country is falling. Throughout history and in our current societies, Jews, Muslims, and immigrants have been blamed for political and economic downfalls. Recently, Chinese immigrants have also become the target, being seen as extended arms of the Chinese government in their plot to dominate the world. It’s a knee-jerk discrimination. Many people of Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese backgrounds were seen as Chinese and physically attacked.
Of all the three features of conspiracies, fake news is extremely important because they turn a “thought” or “suspicion” into a full-fledged plot presented as facts. Fake news could be anything from satire, click baits, to content that is falsified, made-up or placed out of context. Fake news travels 6 times faster than facts. Those who are above 65 years old with conservative viewpoints are more likely to believe fake news. However, the most vulnerable group are 66% of us who frequently get news from social media. Ironically, we are aware that social media is not reliable, yet we keep coming back for facts. It’s like an addiction, we know it is bad, but we can’t help avoiding it.
But why do conspiracies exist?
“Happy, “surprised”, “sad”, “disgusted”, and “angry” are human’s basic emotions. But above all, “fear” is the most powerful mechanism that helps us to avoid danger and survive. The brain’s amygdala responds to all emotions, but activates the quickest and strongest to fear. Naturally, conspiracies with its fear-provoking nature grab our attention first and foremost. From an evolutionary point of view, bad trumps good, and that’s how humans have successfully survived.
However, over thousands of years, this survival mechanism has been evolved and built to serve a tribal life on the savannah. Modern life constantly bombards us with overloaded and never-ending information, including threat signals that could send the amygdala into a chronic state of activation. To avoid this situation, the brain simplifies those floods of information and creates a meaningful pattern. It is an answer to calm us down, giving us the feeling we are back in control.
While essentially a bias by nature, this pattern-making is a survival cognitive ability that has helped humans to advance. The brain is basically a pattern-making/stereotype machine. It creates all kinds of short-cuts, from looking at a cloud and imagining a cat, to assuming that our German counterpart would be a “disciplined” person. Many cultural indexes and frameworks in our discipline are based on this principle of pattern-making, with the purpose to simplify and making sense of a very complex world.
However, patterns are almost always simplified versions of reality, and more often than not, plainly wrong. When making a pattern, we may connect the dots that are irrelevant or falsified. Just because these dots are meaningful to us doesn’t mean they are essential in the big picture. Fake news plays a crucial role in providing information that we may collect and assume as significant elements of what the world should look like.
And how are conspiracies perpetuated?
Conspiracies spread through many other bias mechanisms, i.e. mental shortcuts that help us to make sense of the world.
The first mechanism is called “illusory truth effect”. The brain accounts for only 2% of our body weight, but needs 20% of the energy. Hence, one of its working principles is to favor stimuli that are easy to digest. This means whatever is familiar to us will get into our head much easier. It partly explains why we have in group bias, value collectivism, and (sub)consciously favor those who share similar backgrounds. However, this mechanism also means “brainwashing” works, including conspiracies and fake news. As long as they are repeated again and again, they become truth. Social media gives this a boost, with not only frequency but also intensity of fake news, creating the illusory truth quicker than ever.
The second mechanism is “confirmation bias”. We affirm the essence of our existence with personal identities and values. Information that resonates with these identities and values is more attractive, and hence, easier to be collected in the process of creating a meaningful pattern. Since conspiracies reflect a strong belief of what the world looks like, both facts and fake news that resonate with this belief will be glued together much quicker to confirm the belief ever more. We see only what we want to see.
The third mechanism is “social need”. Humans are herd animals, in the sense that we could only survive if supported by a community. Without this social environment, be it a human or animal one, a human is likely to die. This explains why stories like Tarzan make sense, why the term “individualism” is technically incorrect, and why we can question Maslow’s hierarchy of need because it places “love and belonging” in the third tier and not the most basic one. Conspiracies with its nature of dividing the world into us vs. them fit into this social need. Anyone would feel an immense source of support and empowerment if the people around think the same idea, speak the same voice, and fight for the same purpose. On the internet, networks of conspiracies provide that exact communal need, acting as safety islands and oases for like-minded people, regardless of where they are. Further, because we rely on our ingroup to survive, we are more likely to trust information coming from this community. One in six people admitted to believing what their friends share on social media. Conspiracies and fake news simply abuse that trust.
Apart from these biases, there are many other mechanisms that contribute to the perpetuation of conspiracies and fake news. For example, they spread due to a lack of knowledge, a lack of transparency, when we need a quick answer, when we are under impact of emotions such as anger, or when we are already committed and don’t want to backtrack. The bottom line is that biases are necessary evils. They are short-cuts that have helped our ancestors survive, but in the modern era, they could also lead us to undesirable destinations.
How may an interculturalist respond?
Having taken the first step of understanding what is it and what causes it, the first thing I forced myself to do is to be brutally honest and accept that I am biased. The nature of this profession may incline me towards a more liberal worldview that in certain cases, creates blind spots of judgement. So I asked myself: have I listened and tried to be objective? Have I exercised empathy and perspective-taking? Am I in any sense biased? Am I taking any of my privilege as granted while giving judgement?
This reflection forced me to face the second challenge: responding with kindness. On the one hand, it’s absolutely natural to give harsh judgement. On the other hand, as an interculturalist, I realized that anger, frustration, rejection, condemnation, or punishment may go fast, but not necessarily far. Like a boomerang, it can come back and hurt us with even more divided societies, hatred, and underground movements. After all, people may not change and reject fake news with kindness, but at least, the gap between us does not widen, and they may walk away thinking “Oh, the other side is actually not so bad”.
And as I figured out and shared with you in this article, such an attitude or behavior is probably rooted in the anxiety when facing overloaded and never-ending floods of information. It may come from the fear that identities, values and life opportunities are compromised. It could happen due to a lack of a meaningful and supportive community. It could very well be the result of distrust towards the government and the lack of transparency. For example, if we look for that grain of truth, we may realize that Deep State could be a conspiracy, but political corruption and opportunism are real. To put it simply, conspiracies and fake news are destructive and wrong, but their root causes deserve attention and not rejection. Forcing myself to be kind then helped me to ask if some people are partly victims or totally culprit? To what extent they deserve my compassion and not anger? Forcing myself to be kind also helped me to be more professional in my reaction. As an interculturalist, did I bridge any differences? Did I unite anything or anyone?
This personal journey has been uneasy and bumpy. But I developed immensely from it. Most importantly of all, it has suggested that I may want to keep the intercultural spirit in even non-professional aspects of life. I may distance, but I can also approach. I may want to punish, but I can also console. I may want to condemn, but I can also offer compassion. I may want to point out differences, but I can also reveal similarities.
So I invite you to join this journey with me and share your insight. And this could simply start by next time when we see someone spreading fake news, then challenge ourselves to ask questions with kindness, rather than confront those who attack us with what we assume as facts.
Dr. Nguyen-Phuong-Mai is associated professor at Amsterdam School of International Business. She is known for working as a bridge between cross cultural communication and the field of neuroscience. Following her study at King’s College London in a Master program on Applied Neuroscience, in 2020 she published her latest book “Cross-Cultural Management with Insights from Brain Science”. She continues the discussion in this article at https://www. linkedin.com/in/culturemove/ She can be reached at CultureMove@Culture Move.com