By Sarah - October 15, 2020

Fake News: Why Your Brain Is Lying To You

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Fake News, Everywhere

In 2020, almost half of all adults in the UK get their news updates primarily from social media.1 Research has shown that we are constantly flooded with information that is potentially full of false claims, half backed conspiracy theories and pseudoscientific therapies which pose threat to public health.2

At its core, fake news is a presentation of (typically) false or misleading claims as news, where these are misleading by design to manipulate the audience’s cognitive processes.3

However, this concept is nothing new, and certainly not contained to social media. Since birth, we have been absorbing a plethora of opinions, (un)intentionally false and/or misleading information that has been made available to us by our caregivers, society, communities and content that we engaged with on TV, in books and online.

These early opinions formed the foundation of our entire values system; what we believe to be good, appropriate, important, and crucially, what we believe to be true. Unless something challenges our core values and beliefs, we rarely stop to question the source or the reliability of the information, even if the original source was our mother’s opinion 20 years ago…

Negative Self-Talk as Fake News

How often do you catch yourself thinking:

  • I’m not good/smart/talented enough
  • I’m just not a confident person
  • I’m unlovable
  • I’ll never be able to do that

It’s not only external sources that have the power to feed us misinformation and damage our health in the process. Our own brains are a constant source of fake news for us every single day, most easily detected in the form of our own negative self-talk.

In case it is not immediately obvious, if you are having negative thoughts, it is likely because you absorbed the same negative thoughts from someone or something, somewhere in your past. That doesn’t make it true, that makes it a ‘misleading claim that has manipulated your cognitive process’. AKA fake news.

A good or positive action rarely comes from a negative thought, which is why negative thoughts pose a genuine health risk, no different to the misinformation we absorb online.

Fact-Checking Your Brain

In some good news, your thoughts and opinions are entirely optional. The key is to fact-check your brain when these unhelpful thoughts come up and debunk them where applicable.

The first step in this process is to accept that your brain is not an objectively reliable source of information. Read that again!

Once that has sunk in, the next step is to notice what opinions your brain is telling you instead.

To help, I’ve put together a Fake News Detector exercise for your brain, which takes you through a daily fact-check.

I suggest doing the following activity every day for a week, and see how much fake news your brain is generating for you on a daily basis!

BONUS: The Fake News Detector (for your Brain):

In this activity you will be observing your brain for a week and considering the validity of your thought patterns. All you need is a piece of paper and a pen (or a computer) and two different coloured highlighters.

Step 1: Write down the story of your day on a piece of paper. Don’t think too much about what you’re writing, just get it all out of your head and onto a page.

Step 2: Go through and highlight all the neutral circumstances (facts) that have occurred in your day. This could be: “It was sunny today”, “I spilled my coffee” or “I received an email from my boss” – these lines are completely neutral. They happened, but there is no emotion attached.

Step 3: Then go through again and highlight (in a different colour), all of your thoughts about those facts. This could be “The weather put me in a good mood”, “I was such an idiot for spilling my coffee” or “I’m clearly doing a terrible job at work”.

I’m going to hazard a guess and say that for every line of circumstance, you have 2-10 different thoughts attached. Notice that these thoughts are not facts, they are your opinion…

FAKE NEWS, my friend.

Step 4: Looking back at what you’ve highlighted, which of your thoughts are unhelpful and could do with some further investigative work?

News for Thought:

Remember, your brain is not a reliable source of information on its own. It is far too saturated with opinions to be truly objective.

So, just like when your Aunt casually mentions the moon landing was a hoax (again!), I suggest you query your negative thoughts by asking: who sent you the information, what’s the source, and how do you know whether you trust it to be true?  


  1. ^Ofcom, 2020. News Consumption In The UK: 2020. Jigsaw Research.
  2. ^Naeem, S., Bhatti, R. and Khan, A., 2020. An exploration of how fake news is taking over social media and putting public health at risk. Health Information & Libraries Journal,.
  3. ^Gelfert, Axel. “Fake News: A Definition.” Informal Logic, volume 38, number 1, 2018, p. 84–117.

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