Investigative journalist Thomas Huchon recently shared a conspiracy video with a class at Maxence Van der Meersch Middle School in France, claiming it to be a mini-documentary.
The point? To drive home a lesson about fake news.
Huchon and his colleagues filmed the video back in 2015 after the French terrorist attacks as an experiment to see how easily people believe fake news.
"So we created a fake story," Huchon told NPR. "We put it on the web, and what we expected to happen happened: Lots of conspiracy theorist websites picked up on this information and spread it without any kind of verification."
The conspiracy video accused the CIA of spreading the AIDS virus in Cuba, which led to the long embargo between the U.S. and Cuba. The U.S. lifted the embargo so pharmaceutical companies could cash in on an AIDS vaccine developed by Cuban doctors, according to the fake video.
After watching the video, Huchon asked students who believed the film to raise their hands. He said about one-third of the students believed the hoax.
“And we play with this," he says. "We use this as a trap to make them realize that even when they are in confidence they should not believe de facto. They should have a few reflexes to try and fact-check a little bit more.”
Huchon’s experiment comes at a time when fake news and conspiracy theories appear to be everywhere. Even YouTube noticed several conspiracy theory videos were appearing on its YouTube Kids app, prompting the video service to review which videos appear before children.
Huchon, however, wants to help children understand the gravity of the videos they see. He showed students how conspiracy videos are made to look more accurate. Students involved in the lesson couldn’t believe they had been tricked.
He said students need to always fact-check.
"The best way to fight this kind of fake news discourse is not to give counter-arguments, but to try to check the validity of the other person's argument,” he said.
A new study released this week aligns with Huchon’s thoughts on fighting fake news. The study, called “That’s My Truth,” found that personal bias often distorts one’s view of the facts, which can “cause us to process facts more or less rapidly, and thus can hasten or get in the way of accuracy judgments,” according to Quartz.
A research team asked participants to make quick choices about grammatical accuracy of sentences and rate how much they agree with certain statements. The researchers looked to see if there was a connection between the two processes since one was subjective and the other was objective.
According to Quartz, “when study subjects agreed with what they read, they could also quickly determine whether the sentences were grammatically accurate. When subjects disagreed with the substance of the sentence, however, it took them longer to decide whether the grammar was correct.”
The researchers said subjects took longer to answer the grammatical questions when they disagreed with the opinions, too.
“The results demonstrate that agreement with a stated opinion can have a rapid and involuntary effect on its cognitive processing,” they wrote. “Importantly, the demonstration of such a knee-jerk acceptance (or) rejection of opinions may help explain people’s remarkable ability to remain entrenched in their convictions.”