“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”
This famous quote, often attributed (rightly or wrongly) to Mark Twain, illustrates a human susceptibility to sensationalism and speculation over researched fact. In a digital age increasingly free of traditional informational gatekeepers, it often seems as if lies pilot a jet while the truth rides a scooter.
Major current events, from the vote on Brexit to the American elections in 2016, seem driven by misinformation—but is this a realistic perception? How is it that misinformation could spread so rapidly?
Cailin O’Connor, Ph.D., professor at the University of California at Irvine and author of the book “The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread”, explained at the annual meeting of PR Boutiques International that understanding how false beliefs propagate may lie in defining “belief” as a social phenomenon.
Professor O’Connor highlighted three aspects of humans’ social natures that could affect how information spreads. The first was the idea that humans tend to fall victim to a “conformity bias.” Put simply, this is the concept—observed in psychological studies—of a herd mentality, or an unwillingness to stick out in a crowd. A person is less willing to stand out if those around them are behaving one way, even if that way is incorrect. This means that someone is less likely to share truthful information, even if they know it is the truth, if many people in their social network are saying something different—even if it is incorrect. This willingness to follow the crowd is amplified in the modern era of shares and viral content on social media platforms.
The second concept involves the action of “selective sharing”. This is the act of taking real information that just happens to coincidentally support the views of a particular group, and sharing that information widely without relevant supporting context. In this way, people can be susceptible to forming opinions based on misleading facts—misleading because they do not paint a complete picture of the truth. Misinformation can outrun the truth because in some cases, misinformation can actually be truthful. Context is what can fool people, and a lack of context can turn facts into half-truths. But in this day and age, people don’t always stop to consider the context.
Finally, the third idea Professor O’Connor addressed is centered on the human and societal desire for fairness, and actually incorporates a former broadcasting principle called the Fairness Doctrine. This is rooted in a person’s desire to hear from both sides of an argument. In broadcasting it was a policy by which two sides of an issue were required to receive equal amounts of coverage time in the news.
Unfortunately, while fairness is important, this practice had the unintended effect of making it easier for false information to spread more quickly. Not every debate can have two equally valid sides, and by giving equal attention to both sides of a discussion, the impression can be given that both sides are equally valid, even when one is clearly correct.
Even after the official Fairness Doctrine was retired in 2011, many journalists continue to subscribe to the fairness idea. The result for misinformation can be seen, for example, in the enduring debate over climate change despite the clearly-settled science that proves it exists.
Understanding the psychology of misinformation is critical for communicators who must combat it. A traditional belief in “fairness” may need to be modified to call out wat is true. Encouraging critical thinking can help people break free of the conformity bias. Curators of news can call out facts, rather than just presenting information.
How else do you think we can combat the epidemic of misinformation?
Learn more about Professor O’Connor’s book here.
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