Education and an openness to information play a key role in our ability to distinguish the truth from falsehoods in the complex world of misinformation (fake news) and disinformation (propaganda).

In the context of an election, high-quality education can act as a bulwark against electoral choices based on “noisy” and biased information, endowing voters with a better ability to identify fake news and avoid acting on it, studies have shown. A well-educated population is better able to hold its government to account.

Education is an open-ended concept, however, and requires some qualifying in the world of ideology and politics. Does formal education make us more politically savvy, and how can we sharpen our critical thinking skills, especially online where misinformation and disinformation are becoming ever more sophisticated thanks to artificial intelligence?

In the run-up to South Africa’s election this month, we will hear numerous “facts” and promises from the political parties. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff in the vast field of freely available information that might look like journalism (which adheres to verification practices) but very often isn’t?

Enter the ability to think critically, a skill that should be taught and nurtured at school, according to Angelo Fick, director of research at the Johannesburg-based Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute, speaking recently on SAfm radio’s Mediated Conversation hosted by Stephen Grootes.

Public education in the Global North and Global South have failed on this count over the past 20 years, he said.

“I think literacy and critical literacy is a valuable shield against exploitation. The ability to read for meaning is crucial. And in South Africa, for more than a decade, many of our 10-year-olds couldn’t read for meaning in any language.

“People aren’t born stupid. People are often made stupid through bad education systems. The inability to weigh information against other pieces of information and to know what is meaningful is a crucial skill in navigating modern life, particularly in spaces where political power has to be understood, and has to be limited,” said Fick.

In the 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study: South African Preliminary Highlights Report, the authors report that “81% of South African grade four children were not able to reach the lowest benchmark”. In other words, they could not correctly locate explicit information or reproduce required information from a text by the end of grade four.

The quality of school or university education aside, identifying a false or distorted narrative is ever more challenging in today’s social media-driven world, however well-educated or well-informed you may be.

One of the tools that nations use to spin a narrative is “soft power”—in other words, persuasion through diplomacy or cultural exchange rather than coercion or “hard power” through military enforcement.

The United States, for example, using television news networks such as CNN and its mega-entertainment industry, Hollywood, is the most influential soft power nation in the world, followed by the United Kingdom and China. (China Global TV is now available in more than 100 countries.)

Soft power can significantly shape public perceptions of a nation’s values, for example, showing patriotic films can boost the admiration a populace has for a country’s military prowess.

“It [soft power] probably doesn’t work at the specific, granular level of choosing between box A and box B on a ballot, but it does make a difference in the way we construct our view of the universe,” Brooks Spector, associate editor of the Daily Maverick, said on Stephen Grootes’ show.

On the soft power of entertainment, behavioural economist Dan Ariely points out in his book Misbelief that the competition for human attention between accurate and true information on the one hand and false, sensational information on the other is not a fair fight.

“The stress we feel cries out for a villain to blame and for clear moral lines rather than the messy shades of grey that often represent reality. Take anyone with time to spare and they are likely to watch way too much ‘burned person hates the world and wants to destroy it’ content,” he writes.

One of the ways to inoculate yourself against fake or distorted narratives is to interrogate your convictions by testing whether they are falsifiable, and by considering alternative narratives and similarly testing those. This includes looking for hard data from credible sources such as academic papers and highly regarded news sources.

In so doing, be wary of scientists making statements outside their field of expertise. As Oxford mathematician and philosophy of science professor John Lennox said: “Statements made by scientists are not necessarily statements of science.”

When using an internet search engine, Ariely suggests looking for information in a neutral way, with open-ended questions that may elicit answers that don’t necessarily confirm your personal bias. For example, if you believe Covid-19 vaccines are dangerous, type in “Covid-19 vaccines are not dangerous” to survey and appraise the information that counters your belief.

Practising “intellectual humility” is another way to guard against fake narratives. “The basic idea behind the term is that people who possess a high level of intellectual humility recognise to a significant degree that their own beliefs and opinions might be incorrect … [They] are more likely to pay attention to the strength of the evidence presented to them, and devote more attention and time to views counter to their own,” Ariely writes.

“Those who are higher in intellectual humility are less likely to believe in conspiratorial thinking, fake news, misinformation and pseudoscience.”

Ariely’s observations underscore research that demonstrates critical thinking skills are paramount in discerning misinformation or disinformation.

In his book The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things and How to Make Wiser Decisions, science writer David Robson reiterates that individuals who perform well on cognitive reflection tests, which measure analytical thinking style, tend to be less likely to believe fake news.

“Some people are ‘cognitive misers’, for instance: they may have a lot of brainpower that allows them to perform well in exams, but they don’t always apply it, using intuition and gut instinct rather than reflective, analytical thinking,” Robson said in an April 2019 article in The Guardian.

“This thinking style is commonly measured with a tool known as the cognitive reflection test, using questions such as: ‘If it takes five machines five minutes to make five widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?’ The correct answer is five, but many otherwise intelligent people say 100 — the more intuitive response,” he writes.

In essence, critical thinking revolves around analysis and evaluation, and helps us to judge, understand, reason and, ultimately, determine fact from fiction. A very valuable tool as we head to the polls at the end of this month.

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Helen Grange is a seasoned journalist and editor, with a career spanning over 30 years writing and editing for newspapers and magazines in South Africa. Her work appears primarily on Independent Online (IOL), as well as The Citizen and Business Day newspapers, focussing on business trends, women’s empowerment, entrepreneurship and travel. Magazines she has written for include Noseweek, Acumen, Forbes Africa, Wits Business Journal and UJ Alumni magazine. Among NGOs she has written or edited for are Gender Links and INMED, a global humanitarian development organisation.