No, the antidote to “fake facts” is not “real facts”
The antidote to fake facts is real facts
Inaccurate as a whole (with reservations)
An article published in the Globe and Mail on 18 December 2020 claims that the antidote to fake facts is real facts. This claim is inaccurate, with a reservation.
Fact checking about fact checking
We selected this claim to fact check because of the negative effects of misinformation and disinformation on pandemic management and the importance of implementing effective measures to reduce the spread of misinformation and disinformation.
Misinformation and disinformation have been around for a long time. And with new technologies, they are spreading faster, reaching more and more people. In 2020, as reported in a previous article published on covid19facts.ca, misinformation and disinformation have extended to the COVID-19 pandemic to an unprecedented level because of the uncertainty, confusion and fear that people are experiencing.
In the Globe and Mail article, the author explains precisely how misinformation and disinformation can undermine authorities' efforts to fight against COVID-19 and vaccinate as many people as possible.
However, what grabbed our attention most in this article is the headline, which the author believes is the solution to fake facts: "The antidote to fake facts: real ones". The various qualitative and quantitative data that we have gathered lead us to state that this claim is inaccurate. However, we still have some reservations, which stem from the fact that this Globe and Mail article was published in the "Opinion" section of the newspaper, and therefore may not be factual per se. Therefore, fact-checking an opinion may also be moot.
Is there such as thing as a “fake fact”?
The first hiccup we encountered in this fact check was the concept of “fake fact”. The expression is not new, as a simple Google search shows. However, we greatly object to it.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a fact as “something that has actual existence; an actual occurrence; a piece of information presented as having objective reality; the quality of being actual: actuality”. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “A thing that is known or proved to be true”. Considering this, can a fact technically or semantically be fake? Are “fake” and “fact” not contradictory? Would it not simply be called either a lie, or a misrepresentation, made-up evidence, or an inaccurate statement?
Our questions continue. Is the expression “real facts” not redundant, again in light of the definitions above? Facts are facts, even if they can be used to mislead and to create falsehoods by association or false reasoning.
We are objecting at the outset to the parameters of the claim we are fact checking and to the concept of fake facts because this gives credence to lies and takes away from the objectivity and the truth of facts. Facts are facts. They are not fake; they are not real. They are just facts.
If the antidote to “fake facts” was “real facts”, it would have worked already - and it hasn't
The second hiccup we encountered in this fact check was about the evidence related to the assertion that “real facts” are the antidote to “fake facts”. We know that governments, health authorities, scientists, other groups, and individuals publish and disseminate facts. We know that other groups and individuals publish and disseminate non-facts, lies, misrepresentations. So, if facts were the antidote to lies or misrepresentations, wouldn’t the antidote have worked already?
Misinformation and disinformation cost $78 billion each year, according to a study conducted by Cybersecurity company CHEQ with the University of Baltimore in 2018. Today, in the wake of COVID-19, public and private initiatives have been put in place to fight misinformation and disinformation, appropriately creating content with “real facts”, as the author of the claim we are fact checking suggests and amplifying the spread of this content through traditional as well as social media. But the problem persists. We take this to show that if the antidote to “fake facts” was “real facts”, then these initiatives would have achieved their goal already – and they have not. By default, at this stage, we reached our verdict of inaccurate. Yet we wanted to further explore the topic.
Facts are not enough, but why?
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers published a study in 2018 which explained that misinformation spreads 6 times faster than real information. Among the many reasons why misinformation is rampant are cognitive biases, specifically, confirmation biases: they refer to the tendency to privilege information that confirms our existing beliefs. Cognitive dissonance can also lead to us rejecting facts that do not align with our beliefs.
A person who believes in something will more quickly accept information that goes in the same direction as their belief. On the other hand, he or she will have difficulty letting go of this belief, to embrace new facts, even if they are “true/real”. Cognitive bias or dissonance have nothing to do with intelligence, but rather with beliefs. Which is why we can sometimes be surprised at who espouses statements and ideas that are not factually sound.
Recently Independent MPP Randy Hillier, who represents the riding of Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston in Ontario, Canada, posted a picture of a Christmas gathering on his Twitter account, showing 15 people around a table, celebrating a holiday meal. Not only was this gathering illegal under Ontario's existing health regulations, but Mr. Hillier appeared to be defying health authorities. Although some people are outraged by the photo and have even called for Mr. Hillier's resignation, others are encouraging him to defend his "freedom".
This shows a person's willingness to do things according to their beliefs, despite the realities of the COVID-19, including cases and deaths, in addition to their knowledge of the established rules. The “real facts” may be there, properly disseminated and landing in the right inboxes or on the right walls, but at the end of the day, it seems that people can be cognitively lazy, preventing them from accepting facts or from taking a step back from the information and thinking critically.
Other initiatives to inoculate against “fake facts”
The Globe and Mail article states that it is important for health authorities and government leaders to use every means at their disposal to make people understand that vaccines are safe, that getting vaccinated is the only way to protect themselves and others, that vaccines have saved lives in the past. The other element the author proposes is to highlight key individuals who are willing to be vaccinated to set an example and reassure the public. These initiatives have already been used or are being used by organizations such as the United Nations, World Health Organization (WHO) and governments. Companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google are also contributing to the fight against fake facts that can undermine vaccine efforts.
However, in some cases, these good intentions to fight misinformation and disinformation are having unexpected effects. In the United States, the personalities who volunteered to be vaccinated to set an example have raised some doubts. Is it not rather a strategy for some politicians to take advantage and skip the priority line in order to get vaccinated, under the pretext of setting an example?
About social media companies, researchers in another MIT study found that the "disputed" or "False" labels that Facebook or Twitter put on verified publications resulted in what the researchers called "implied truth". In other words, in people's perception, publications that do not have these labels are true, which is not always the case.
What is the ultimate solution?
An infodemic, as defined by the World Health Organization, is "an over-abundance of information - some accurate and some not - that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it". It is the contraction of the words "information" and "epidemic" or "pandemic".
Flooding the sphere with “real facts” is not enough, as we have established. But it is a start. In doing so, it is necessary to provide people with the material they need to distinguish the true from the false. This means that without education or an understanding of our own psychology, real facts will have no effect in the face of the rise of misinformation and disinformation. In addition, in the case of health emergencies such as COVID-19, it is important for organizations such as WHO, Health Canada to prepare effective strategies to quickly produce, distribute and control the narrative around the situation.
However, accurate information, even if disseminated widely and through various forms, is only one piece of a giant puzzle that keeps moving because it is subject to the interpretation of the human mind and the willingness of humans – which are at best in constant turmoil during times of uncertainty and emergency, further complicating the psychology of misinformation and disinformation.
Reducing misinformation and disinformation requires a multi-pronged approach that involves governments, legislators, educators, big technology companies, civil society and individuals. Until all involved are strategically and coherently tackling this global problem, it will continue to grow.
How can you fight misinformation and misinformation?
No one is immune from the consumption and sharing of misinformation and disinformation. We must all be empowered to fight against these growing scourges. With this in mind, we have created a step-by-step guide that is simple and easy to remember the FACTS Framework to Fight Misinformation and Disinformation. You can find it on this page and share it. If you want to learn more about the psychology behind our vulnerability to misinformation and disinformation, we encourage you to visit to read this article from First Draft News.
University of Baltimore
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
University of California Santa Barbara
World Health Organization
World Economic Forum
Globe and MailOrganization
The antidote to fake facts is real facts
December 31, 2020
Learn more about our fact-checking methodology HERE.