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Fake news, cognitive bias and my experience with ASUU strike; By Mohammed Dahiru Lawal


In November 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown began to ease off and life started creeping back to normal, Nigerian students in federal universities could not get their own life back due to an ongoing strike.

They had been held down for a year, struck by the double limits of a global pandemic lockdown and a subsisting strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) over a face-off with the Nigerian Government on the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS).

Students were gasping desperately for a breakthrough – some favourable truce – between the FG and ASUU, amidst a series of failed talks. Any information that appealed to that desperation was an easy grab no matter how scanty the parameters of authenticity were. 

So, when on Friday 27th November, 2020, news filtered in that ASUU had agreed to call off the nine-month-old strike, it generated a barrage of excitement among students, but that excitement soon came crashing like a pack of cards when reality dawned that that piece of information was not true.

In this era of digital publishing, that report alone among many of such similar stories, yet underscores another reason why those of us involved in the chain of information dissemination (whether professionals or amateur routine social media users) must apply the thumb on our screens with utmost discretion and care, lest we become invariable accomplices to misinformation, a trajectory that will not augur well for our collective sanity and progress.

Being a student, I recall vividly that the cumulative amount of time I spent that day explaining to various callers who reached out to me that the news item was not the “official” position of ASUU, would have been more than enough for me to be productive on many of my pending to-do’s.

Admittedly, I was tempted to publish the same report, but I noticed that the report was based on speculation on one side – the FG. I knew immediately that I must either re-write that report before publishing or discard it completely. I would have preferred the former, but time and commitments did not permit me, so I just held back, understanding that we must hear the side of ASUU first before drawing conclusions.

I held on because, it surprised me that ASUU “agreed to call off” yet it did not address a press conference on emerging from the meeting with the FG to announce that by itself as is its usual practice. That alone was a red flag for me.

The bottom-line was that ASUU eventually denied the report making the rounds by the following morning only to call off the strike almost a month later and it was via an official press conference just as I had forecast to my callers.

When we consider how we engage with the news, some shortcuts we may want to pay close attention to, and reflect carefully on, are cognitive biases.

Cognitive biases are best described as glitches in how we process information. Operating under a cognitive bias means that we don’t make sense of information in a rational manner, and as a result, fail to accurately perceive, process, or remember information. There are a large number of cognitive biases, but the following are especially relevant when it comes to news consumption:

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out and value information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs while discarding information that proves our ideas wrong.

Echo chamber effect refers to a situation in which we are primarily exposed to information, people, events, and ideas that already align with our point of view. This helps to bolster opinions we already have and may lead to change avoidance.

Anchoring bias, also known as “anchoring,” refers to people’s tendency to consider the first piece of information they receive about a topic as the most reliable. When connected to the notion that most social media users operate in an echo chamber, one can see how people who rely on their social media networks for news are more likely to see their views about a specific issue reinforced rather than challenged.

The framing effect is what happens when we make decisions based on how information is presented or discussed, rather than its actual substance. This can lead to decision-making based on semantic perceptions rather than content-based arguments, even if the information shared in each approach is the same.

Fluency heuristic occurs when a piece of information is deemed more valuable because it is easier to process or recall. When a politician uses a catchy soundbite to convey an idea, as opposed to a lengthy speech, this cognitive bias holds that people will think the soundbite is more worthwhile than the speech because it is more accessible.

Everyone operates under one or more cognitive biases. So, when searching for and reading the news (or other information), it is important to be aware of how these biases might shape how we make sense of this information. The best way to create this awareness is by asking ourselves a series of reflective questions each time we read, hear, or see a news story.

The researcher produced this media literacy article per the Dubawa 2021 Kwame KariKari Fellowship partnership with PRNigeria to facilitate the ethos of “truth” in journalism and enhance media literacy in the country.

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