Disinformation is easily amplified when it triggers a flight or fight response where we react quickly and automatically. The good news is that the media has changed their attitude towards this.
Opinion: Last week, I was in Oakland for the first time since the start of the pandemic for the Auckland Writers Festival panel on false information. Many of us in this field care deeply about protecting people, especially young people, from the harm caused by users of false information. We want the information environment to be healthy, nurture curiosity, and help people make decisions that will lead to good outcomes for them and society.
I am usually invited to such discussions because the book I wrote Fact: Telling the truth in a post-truth world, and the work I’m doing is focused on how we can create a healthy information environment where false information has little room to grow and few mechanisms to spread. Other experts I have worked with have worked in the field of response – how do we intervene in the cases of those who spread false information, including threats or violence, and what we can do for people who are manipulated by these people’s harmful narratives. The space they focus on is intense – occupied by small groups of people on the edge of false informational narratives and conspiracy theories. It’s scary when it erupts and these little groups do a lot of harm to some people. When these users of false information spread it in the mainstream discourse, it undermines people’s perceptions and their understanding of reliable information. There was naturally a lot of talk on the panel about the role of social media.
Social media allows people to spread false information further and faster than ever. Those who created and maintain this technology have paved a very smooth path for those who use false information to reach many more people. But why are we so eager to share information, especially false information?
False information is easily spread by people because most of it triggers a flight or fight response. This is disturbing and frustrating. This creates a sense of fear or a need to protect ourselves and the people we love, creates a “scary other” and even a sense of excitement. We tend to respond quickly and automatically to the very physical and intense feelings that result—like, share, or retweet (to agree or disagree) most of the time. When we take this action, we satisfy a biologically determined but unconscious need to do something, and often this action gives us a sense of security.
Our autonomic nervous system—our brain, sense organs, and emotions—governs reactive and automatic responses. Answers that lead us to amplify false information. The people who create the false information and the social media companies are aware of this backlash and benefit from it. The more people are exposed to this false information, and the more they get it from different sources, the more it reinforces the feeling that it is true. These numerous disturbing stories contribute to the spread of false and harmful narratives and spread false information to more people.
Having feelings and acting on them when disturbing information comes up is a major part of what makes us human. We all have these emotion-driven information processing systems that help us survive and thrive. But this is used by people who want to make money on social networks and false information.
For most of us in this work, it is important to protect people, especially young people, from the harm that misinformation does.
It is useful to know how this system of thought works. When we do this, we can learn why it is useful to pause between information, feelings, and reactions. Be a little careful when you feel anxious or excited about information and want to share it, and be careful about how you feel after you’ve done so. This is what researchers, investigators and writers who are interested in false information should also do so that we can not become part of the problem.
The actions of people using false information are also alarming. The reporting and investigation of false information has also become a concern in recent times, with both threats of violence and actual violence. I point this out because people who are interested in reducing the harm caused by false information are people too. We have a nervous system that responds to disturbing information with a high-stakes adrenaline rush. If we don’t act carefully, the anxiety we feel can cause us to act in a number of ways that may be useless for our primary motivation to overcome false information.
The first problem is that we can amplify certain instances of false information.
When we are anxious or just doing our job, we can become prone to share the most factual false information, often in order to disprove it. However, in an extremely noisy and congested information environment where people can forget the original source of information (known as source confusion), the repetition of false information makes people more familiar with it, and false information becomes easier to retrieve, remember, and recognize. think about. Think about how easy it is to misinform about vaccines.
The good news is that I have noticed a consistent shift in how people in the media and in research talk about specific cases of false information. Even a year or two ago, people would repeat false information when reporting it for the sake of accuracy, but now this practice has been greatly reduced. Many in the media are now aware of amplification effects, source confusion, and the risk of being themselves a source of misinformation. It’s nice to know that there’s been a positive shift in understanding of what not to do with false information. Interventions such as pre-feeding or vaccination and truth sandwiches are better known and used more frequently.
Problem number two is a little more difficult to solve: researchers, writers, and spreaders of false information become part of the panic information machine.
Sometimes our own anxiety about false information can lead us to become the source of new disturbing content – this time about false information as a problem in itself.
The false consensus effect is that people who create false information see their work repeated so often (whether on their social media feed or in other media) that they view this consensus as evidence that the false beliefs are shared many people. It is difficult for people to determine the true scope of the problem in an information environment focused on the most disturbing information.
Conversely, “pluralistic ignorance” occurs when people who do not believe false information are given the false impression that many others hold these ideas, and there is a feeling that there must be something behind this if so many people are interested. As a result, they change their position to better match the false information. This is one of the ways that extreme conspiracy theories and narratives can end up being used by people in politics, as in the case of Jerry Brownlee’s “big mistake”. While Brownlee may have used false information in error, other politicians may use it more cynically. Constantly talking about conspiracy theories and false information in public without a sense of scale can also create a sense of panic in those who are not involved.
Meanwhile, those who spread false information are instilled with a sense of confidence that they “win” because of how much attention their false information now attracts.
For those of us who work in this field, the challenge is to ensure that our own anxieties do not push us into doing potentially harmful work. This is a difficult path for which there are no easy answers. My own approach to solving these puzzles is to first follow what the data shows will help us achieve results that matter in terms of creating healthier information environments for our children. Secondly, I try to measure the impact of my work in terms of these results.
For most of us in this work, it is important to protect people, especially young people, from the harm that misinformation causes. Everyone on the Writer’s Festival panel clearly imagined a world where our infosphere nurtures curiosity and helps people make the right decisions that will lead to good outcomes for them and society. If we focus on this vision, it will help us achieve it.