Fake News and Cognitive Ability

Information Overload, Attitude, and Social Media are Odd Bedfellows

Photo of Kelly R. Smith   by Kelly R. Smith
Inundated with fake news
Inundated with fake news
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This article was updated on 02/22/21.

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Fake news has always been with us, but the advent of the internet and social media really gave it legs. And under President Donald Trump, it really became a “thing.” In view of the recent presidential election, it seems ironic that Trump called the press out on it in no uncertain terms while Joe Biden created a lot of it. He’s made a cottage industry of fabrications, either to pander certain groups or to puff out his own feathers.

For example, when he tried to generate support with civil liberties advocates by telling this outrageous lie. The Washingtonpost.com reported Biden’s quote, “This day, 30 years ago, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and entered into discussions about apartheid. I had the great honor of meeting him. I had the great honor of being arrested with our U.N. ambassador on the streets of Soweto trying to get to see him on Robbens Island.1 The problem? It never happened.

But that’s the problem with this kind of self-serving fake news. It sticks. And, it forms and solidifies opinions to some degree. But do those opinions remain set in stone? Even after fabrications have been fact-checked and exposed as fraud? It’s really a sliding scale; it depends on the level of the cognitive ability of the recipient.

What is Cognitive Ability?

In order to understand this sliding scale, it is important to understand what cognitive ability is. Sharpbrains.com says, “Cognitive abilities are brain-based skills we need to carry out any task from the simplest to the most complex. They have more to do with the mechanisms of how we learn, remember, problem-solve, and pay attention, rather than with any actual knowledge. For instance, answering the telephone involves perception (hearing the ring tone), decision taking (answering or not), motor skill (lifting the receiver), language skills (talking and understanding language), social skills (interpreting tone of voice and interacting properly with another human being).”2

The Relationship Between Cognitive Ability and Attitude Adjustment

Changing one’s opinions after learning that the initial reporting was fake news is surprisingly rare. People are polarized and resist changing opinion. But a person with high cognitive ability (we might unscientifically say open-minded) will take the fact-checking under consideration and re-evaluate. The low cognitive will not. Others lie somewhere in between.

An experiment reported on by ScienceDirect said, “The present experiment (N = 390) examined how people adjust their judgment after they learn that crucial information on which their initial evaluation was based is incorrect. In line with our expectations, the results showed that people generally do adjust their attitudes, but the degree to which they correct their assessment depends on their cognitive ability. In particular, individuals with lower levels of cognitive ability adjusted their attitudes to a lesser extent than individuals with higher levels of cognitive ability. Moreover, for those with lower levels of cognitive ability, even after the explicit disconfirmation of the false information, adjusted attitudes remained biased and significantly different from the attitudes of the control group who was never exposed to the incorrect information.”3

Compounding this problem is the fact that the case can be made that the social media platforms are using their power of censorship to shape opinions, and further, to suppress those opinions that they don’t agree with. This is why there are so many congressional hearings (which just turn out to be lip service; congress members bloviate but then they just do a press conference).

Fake News and Social Media

It may be called “social” media, but it has become so much more than that. Dustin Carnahan, an assistant professor of communications at Michigan State University’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences, explains it thus, “We’re reaching a critical point regarding what role social media should play in society as these platforms — and how we use them — have evolved. Instead of being places where people stay connected and share the details of their lives, they’re increasingly being used as sources of information. A recent Pew survey found nearly six in 10 people regularly use social media for news and while it’s not their only news outlet, it’s an important one. As a result, the quality of information people receive from social media is becoming a bigger question.”4

Take for example, the recent situation, prior to the presidential election, when Twitter censored the New York Post’s posting about an article detailing Hunter and Joe Biden’s shenanigans. Part of this was misusing the power of the office of vice president. “The story story outlined the connection between Hunter Biden, Joe Biden, and money then Vice-President Biden held hostage from the Ukraine until they dismissed the prosecutor that was investigating the energy giant Burisma, on whose board Hunter Biden sat.”5

Actions such as this go beyond shaping opinion; this is interfering in a presidential election. Twitter’s rationale? They said the story violated the policy against the “distribution of hacked material.” Hacked? They knew that as soon as the posting was made? In the end it turned out to be be not only true, but on Hunter Biden’s computer.

In the end, the proliferation of fake news, filtered news, and censorship by the mainstream media and social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook do have consequences. The end result is nothing less than social engineering. Corporate attitude adjustment.

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  1. Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post, Biden’s ridiculous claim he was arrested trying to see Mandela, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/02/25/bidens-ridiculous-claim-he-was-arrested-trying-see-mandela/
  2. SharpBrains, What are cognitive abilities and skills, and can we boost them?, https://sharpbrains.com/what-are-cognitive-abilities/
  3. Jonas De Keersmaecker, Arne Roets, ScienceDirect, ‘Fake news’: Incorrect, but hard to correct. The role of cognitive ability on the impact of false information on social impressions, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0160289617301617#ks0005
  4. MSUTODAY, The truth behind fake news and politics on social media, https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2020/the-truth-behind-fake-news-and-politics-on-social-media/
  5. Kelly R. Smith, I Can Fix Up My Home Blog, Social Media Censoring New York Post to Protect Biden, http://www.icanfixupmyhome.com/WPBlog1/2020/10/16/social-media-censoring-new-york-post-to-protect-biden/

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About the Author:

Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.

How Health Care Systems Use Clinical Empathy to Support Patients

by Kelly R. Smith

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Surgeon and nurse operating on a patient
Surgeon and nurse operating on a patient

Introduction: What is Clinical Empathy?

What is clinical empathy? The Journal of General Internal Medicine1 defines it this way, “the act of correctly acknowledging the emotional state of another without experiencing that state oneself.” Note that patients desire empathy from providers, and providers want to make it available. As opposed to the layman’s concept of empathy, professional empathy must be purely cognitive, in contrast with sympathy. Otherwise, the professional risks identifying too closely with the patient, endangering the relationship and clouding the judgement needed for proper medical condition diagnosis and treatment.

Of course, this is not to say that the concept of clinical empathy is limited to the relationship between the provider and the patient (although that is the focus of this paper). It affects the entire medical community in one way or another. It applies to all, from the ophthalmologist to the surgeon and everyone in between.

The Role of Social Media

More patients are going online to discuss what they are experiencing. Such as, “Did you have this side effect from your flu shot? Were you warned?” This is having a relatively new influence on the patient/doctor relationship. The question is – how can this situation be managed in the most productive way possible? Empathy skills can be honed by understanding real-life situations and concerns. In order to get a grasp on what kind of relevant concerns are floating around on the internet, data analysis must be . At first glance, due to the sheer magnitude (and “noise”) of the data set, the problem might seem overwhelming.

This is where specialized software comes into the picture. Specifically, data analysis software that has both the statistical and analytical capacity to inspect, clean, transform, and model data in order to derive important information for decision-making purposes.

What sort of patient concerns crop up often in social media? Wait-time is always a big issue that leads to patient frustration. They see a lot of activity in the hospital or clinic, but nobody has a sense of urgency for their care. Another common concern is doctors and staff that are distracted, aloof, and impersonal. It is also quite common for someone online to seek out others that have had their condition and they want advice or confirmation that their treatment protocol will result in a high level of efficacy. Conversely, some patients reach out to share without being asked. This can be considered empathy in its own right.

Providers have noticed an uptick in this type of social media use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Group norms play a large part in this; while spending more time indoors and online researchers have found that individuals gravitate towards similar age groups, lifestyles, and socioeconomic groups that are similar to their own.

In many cases, the provider realistically can’t spend a great deal of time with one individual, or the volume of information is so large that the patient does not absorb it all. The patient may decide to fill in the gaps, and discover other points of view, via the internet. Social media used properly is a benefit to the medical community.2

Improving Clinical Empathy and Setting a Standard

The first step is to reach a consensus among the group of providers involved. Next is to define the current dynamic. and define specific methods to achieve the level of improvement needed. Some things to consider are:

  • Is there a current system of training for the group to ensure that a standard level of knowledge and application exists.
  • Is emphasis being adequately put on communication skills? There are many times when the provider must deliver negative news to the patient. Empathetic skills are extremely important in these situations.
  • Are providers experiencing “burnout” due to stress, administrative duties, long hours, etc.? This will have an adverse effect on providing empathetic care.

The Importance of Clinical Empathy

The importance of empathy in the provider/patient relationship cannot be overstated. In many cases, a patient who harbors the perception that the provider is not caring or involved will not present sufficient information for a proper diagnosis to be made. Empathy creates a communication bridge between the provider and the patient.

An end-game consequence is fewer situations where a patient does not feel like he or she received the expected level of care. More successful case outcomes translate into greater provider satisfaction and fewer issues with burnout.

What Are Some Relevant Barriers to Achieving Clinical Empathy

  • Lack of emotional intelligence, being unaware that one isn’t being perceived as empathetic.
  • Younger providers during training can seek to emulate more established colleagues who themselves are not empathetic.
  • Trying to balance the need to be objective and the need to show empathy and falling on the left side of the scale. This can be especially problematic when delivering bad news.
  • When a provider is experiencing burnout or has simply become jaded due to the long time spent on the job; enthusiasm to help others can get lost over time.

Empathy Gaps

Empathy gaps occur when the patient has seen his provider but comes away unsatisfied, feeling misunderstood. This can occur when:

  • They feel misunderstood or that the wrong assumptions were made.
  • They feel that the advice was boilerplate rather than personalized.
  • They feel that the level of service was substandard. This can be a problem for doctors that accept Medicare and Medicaid and try to book as many patients as possible.
  • No advise was given for supplements that could help their conditions or interfere with current treatment.

Changing behavior that causes these gaps can be done through MAPS (Motivation Ability Processing). This is formal training that providers go through that touches on areas of concern that have been identified.


Clinical empathy is not a recent phenomenon but advances in technology present new and powerful tools to identify issues and correct them. A suitable attitude is, “never be satisfied nor complacent.” Empathy has affected the medical community in many ways and is itself being affected by ever-changing conditions. Two of the prominent recent ones are the expanding presence of social media and the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Ways to alleviate it in order to provide a better experience for the patient and the provider are being explored and implemented.


  1. Jodi Halpern MD, PhD. What is Clinical Empathy? Journal of General Internal Medicine. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1046/j.1525-1497.2003.21017.x
  2. Katherine Chretein and Terry Kind, Social Media and Clinical Care, Circulation, https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/circulationaha.112.128017

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Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.

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Troubled Times for Google

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The Google Logo
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Social media sites are the mega-industries of this generation. They are high-tech with more storage and computational power than we could have dreamed of a mere twenty years ago. However, with enormous power comes enormous responsibility. In many cases, these social media powerhouses don’t police themselves and take on arrogant personalities. 

Social Media Data Breaches

Just recently it came to light that Facebook was using user’s personal information for financial gain, specifically to influence political outcomes. CEO Mark Zuckerburg was called on the carpet before Congress where he apologized, but of course his check had been cashed and the damage was done.

But Facebook is not alone when it comes to handling user information. It has recently come to light that Google’s G+ app had left vulnerabilities wide open.  The software glitch gave outside developers possible access to private profile data of thousands of Google+ users.

The fact that this happened is not particularly surprising. I used to be a software developer and it is just a fact that with thousands of lines of code, things slip through no matter how much testing is done. The problem with Google is that they chose to put the hush-hush on the data breach rather than  being up front with users and the media.

Their solution? They plan to shut down G+. It’s a shame because myself, like many others, enjoy the platform. This, despite the fact that it sometimes takes some wading through a sea of anti-Semite activists, antifa thugs, and pornographers.

Irresponsible Employees Given a Pass

This is another example of shameful corporate positions. Just recently,  Dave Hogue,  a design lead at Google, has slammed Republicans in an angry Twitter rant over the nomination of now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

His Twitter rant?  “You are finished, @GOP. You polished the final nail for your own coffins. F–K. YOU. ALL. TO. HELL. I hope the last images burned into your slimy, evil, treasonous retinas are millions of women laughing and clapping and celebrating as your souls descend into the flames.” Google’s response?

“What employees say in their personal capacity has no bearing on the way we build or operate our products,” a Google spokeswoman told Fox News, via email. In other words, even a design lead has no moral or personal responsibility to act as an adult and has leeway to post this garbage that is even viewable to children. Great corporate culture, Google. And did he post it on your company computer, on company time? Just hear crickets on that one.

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Protection Against Information Harvesting

Most social media is free to users which is one reason that antitrust regulations have not been brought to bear against them. They profit by profiling users, selling their personal data, and serving up targeted ads. But there are ways users can protect their privacy.

Don’t be completely honest in your profiles. Change your birth date, location, employer, etc. Use the Tor browser to protect yourself from tracking. Use Privacy Badger to block spying ads and invisible trackers.

The point of all this is not to invest in paranoia. The point is that as free citizens we deserve and are entitled to privacy. We are people, not commodities. It is just as important as our home security.

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