How news & fake news is messing with our brains


Does news & fake news effect our mental well-being?

Never before in the history of mankind have we been bombarded with so much information as with the rise of the internet and social media. News as it happens, fake news, facts, life stories, conspiracy theories and rumours every second of the day.

Another phenomenon that affects our lives negatively is fake news. Before the internet, stories were covered by trained journalists who verified information to the best of their ability. Nowadays anyone can write anything and post it. Stories can be made up or twisted, photos can be altered. A story can spread around the world faster than you can put your socks on.

 “Social media allows you to reach virtually anyone and to play with their minds.” -Uzi Shaya, former senior Israeli intelligence officer

Information warfare is as old as warfare itself.

The ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote in his book ‘’The Art of War ‘’ (5th century BC.) that all warfare is based on deception. The general believe of “You can do whatever you want. You can be whoever you want” on the internet has let the use of disinformation as a tool of persuasion and weapon of influence reach new heights.

The news is basically anxiety producing, depressing, mostly useless as it generally has no effect on our lives, and repetitive. Yet we become addicted to it. Most news shows are designed to create worry and generally offer no solutions so we get hooked waiting for an answer or a good outcome. We tend to crave news because without it, we feel empty and anxious.

The way we react to news – whether false or real, indicate we are unconsciously susceptible to influence and manipulation, often by unscrupulous persons who intend to sow chaos. Spreading false messages to influence what people believe and how they behave—in ways they would not otherwise—for example xenophobic rumors in South Africa.

People are influenced  easily by the spread of false rumors into believing that foreigners are the reason why South African citizens are poor and unemployed. South Africans accuse immigrants of taking jobs, bringing in drugs, and sexually abusing women. The aftermath of these rumors are waves of violence that sweep through communities where people are threatened, killed and shops looted and burnt. The fake news ignores the reality of a government that steadily pillaged the resources of our country during the past 12 years that should have been used for job creation and development. It means that we as a people are vulnerable to manipulation in ways that we are just beginning to fully appreciate.

Do not presume news events have no effect on you. Being constantly exposed to bad news makes you sick. People watching these traumatic events on the media experience shock, isolation, depression, anxiety and stress. It becomes difficult with the never-ending news onslaught to return to a calm relaxed state. It leaves us in constant fight or flight mode.  It may stem from a primitive behavioral instinct that humans have, called surveillance gratification-seeking. It is important to you to know whether you are safe or not. But the constant bombardment with bad news has an adverse effect on us.

Boldfish describes the following symptoms as effects news have on us:

Complacency – similar to our brain’s ability to erase from consciousness stimuli that we are constantly subjected to, a constant dose of negativity could lead us to “get used” to it, and it becoming the new norm.

Paralysis/Helplessness – a constant bombardment of negativity can lead to feelings of helplessness and an inability to figure out what to do next.

Constant Feeling of Crisis – it can get your mind to enter a constant state of “crisis-mode” where you are trapped in a cycle of negativity and every moment could mean the end of the world.

Depression – negative news can trigger negative emotions, but being constantly subjected to it could lead to depression and other mental health disorders.

How regain control over from a ”I have to watch the news” compulsion

  • Consider whether the news is really that important to you; does it really affect your life? Become aware of  the feelings it awakens in you? Does it leave you more happy or more stressed?
  • Limit the time you watch or read news. Decide on a specific time per day to watch news.
  • Switch off all notifications that alert you to news coming in. Remove yourself from social media that bombards you with news stories or mute it.
  • Rather choose one trustworthy news-feed source instead of subscribing to several sources. One source that provides you with headlines once a day will keep you informed of news events.
  • Find new healthier ways to spend your time that is creative, calming or entertaining – read a book, watch a movie, play board games, do gardening.
  • Try and steer clear of fake news, which only tends to draw strong emotions in you.

How to determine what is fake and what is real:

  • Read with a critical eye. Why was it written? To shock, to anger or to get a response from you?
  • Check the source: Where did it originate from? Legitimate websites ends with ‘’; .com;’’. Strange-sounding URLs that end in extensions like “.infonet” and “.offer,” are usually fake websites.
  • Is any other credible news agency reporting on the same story?
  • Is the image used fake or real?
  • What is the date of the original story? People sometimes use old news to upset years later again.
  • Use your common sense. Does it sound possible or far-fetched?

You are aware that many fake stories are post every day – don’t share if you haven’t made sure it is legit. Criminal charges, as well as civil claims, could be laid against people who disseminated fake news that caused harm.

‘’If you share fake news stories online, you could face criminal charges.’’

Social media expert Emma Sadleir said in the present “post-truth era”, people needed to be held responsible for what they disseminated online. “All the same laws still apply on social media.”

Online content should always be carefully examined before it was shared, because the person who shared content that was harmful or offensive would be held responsible for it. “You can disassociate yourself from the news by sharing it and saying ‘I can’t believe this is being shared.’”

Africa Check has listed fake news websites in South Africa you should definitely avoid:

  • T1mesLive
  • African News Updates
  • iMzansi
  • Live Monitor
  • News24-TV
  • iMzansi
  • Mzansi LIVE
  • Mzansi Stories
  • CitySun
  • Gossip Mill Mzansi
  • Pretorialive
  • South Africa Latest News


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