How To

How to deal with the “excitement” of false information

Social issues

Misinformation is easily amplified when it involves a flight or fight response, when we react quickly and automatically. The good news is that there is a change in the way the media is handling this

Opinion: Last week I was in Auckland for the first time since the start of the pandemic for an Auckland Writers Festival panel on misinformation. For many of us in this field, we care deeply about protecting people, especially young people, from the harm caused by consumers of misinformation. We want an information environment that is healthy, nurtures curiosity and helps people make decisions that will lead to good outcomes for them and society.

I usually get invited to this kind of panel because a book I wrote, A Matter of Truth: Telling the Truth in a Post-Truth World, and the work I do is focused on how we can create a healthy information environment where false information has little room to thrive and few mechanisms to spread. The other experts I appeared with work in the area of ​​responsiveness—how we intervene with those who spread false information, including those who threaten or use violence, and what we can do for the people manipulated by these people’s harmful narratives. The space they focus on is intense – occupied by small groups of people at the extreme end of disinformation narratives and conspiracy theories. It’s scary when it breaks out and these little groups do a lot of harm to some people. When these users of false information spread it into mainstream discourse, it undermines people’s concept and understanding of good 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 farther and faster than ever before. Those who have created and maintain this technology have created a very smooth path for those using 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 much of it triggers a flight or fight response. This is disturbing and upsetting. It creates a sense of fear or the need to protect ourselves and the people we love, creates a “scary other” and even a sense of excitement. We tend to react quickly and automatically to very physical and intense feelings that arise – in most cases we like, share or retweet (agree or disagree). When we take this action, we are satisfying a biologically conditioned but unconscious need to do something, and often this action will make us feel safe.

Our autonomic nervous system – our brain, senses and emotions – govern reactive and automatic responses. Answers that cause us to expand on false information. Misinformation creators and social media companies are aware of this backlash and have taken advantage of it. The more people are exposed to this false information, and the more they are exposed to it from different sources, the more it reinforces the perception that it is true. These very disturbing stories contribute to wider false and harmful narratives and bring false information to more people.

Having feelings and acting on them when presented with troubling information is a fundamental part of what makes us human. We all have these emotion-driven information processing systems—a system that has helped us survive and thrive. But this is exploited by people who want to make money from social media and false information.

For most of us who do this work, what matters is protecting people, especially young people, from the harm that misinformation causes

It is useful to know how this thought system works. When we do, we can learn why it’s helpful to pause between information, feelings, and reactions. Be a little cautious when you feel anxious or excited about information and want to share it, and be mindful of how you feel after you do. This is something researchers, researchers, and writers interested in disinformation must also do to avoid becoming part of the problem.

The actions of people who use false information are also worrying. The reporting and investigation of false information has also become alarming recently with threats of violence as well as actual violence. I bring this up because people interested in reducing the harm caused by misinformation are people too. We have nervous systems that respond to troubling information with a high-stakes-induced adrenaline rush. If we are not careful, the alarm we feel can cause us to act in several ways that may be counterproductive to our primary motivation to overcome misinformation.

Problem one – we can expand on specific instances of false information.

When we are anxious or just going about our business, we can become inclined to share the actual false information itself, often with the goal of disproving it. However, in a massively noisy and overwhelming information environment where people may forget the original source of information (known as source confusion), repeating the false information makes people more familiar with it and the false information becomes easier to access, recall and I think about. Consider how easily false information about vaccinations comes to mind.

The good news is that I’ve noticed a concerted shift in the way people in the media and research talk about specific cases of misinformation. Even a year or two ago, people would repeat false information when reporting it, for the sake of accuracy, but now there is a significant reduction in this practice. Many in the media already know about the amplification effects, the confusion of sources and the risk of becoming a source of false information themselves. It is good to know that there is a positive change in understanding what not to do with false information. Interventions such as preslicing or inoculation and truth sandwiches are better known and used more frequently.

Problem two is a little trick to deal with – disinformation researchers, writers and communicators become part of the alarming information machine.

Sometimes our own anxiety about misinformation can lead us to become the source of new alarming content—this time about misinformation as a problem in itself.

The false consensus effect is when people who create false information see their work repeated so often (whether on their social media or in other media), they see that consensus as evidence that the false beliefs are shared by many people . The true scale of the problem is difficult for people to determine in an information environment that focuses on the most alarming information.

Conversely, “pluralistic ignorance” occurs when people who don’t believe misinformation get the false impression that many others hold these ideas, and get the feeling that there must be something behind it if so many people care. As a result, they change their position to be more aligned with the false information. This is one way that extreme conspiracy theories and narratives can be used by people in politics, as in Gerry Brownlee’s ‘colossal blunder’. While Brownlee may have used false information by mistake, other people in politics may have used it more cynically. Constantly talking about conspiracy theories and false information in public, without a sense of scale, can also generate a sense of panic among those not involved.

Meanwhile, those spreading the false information are instilled with a sense of confidence that they are “winning” because of how much attention their false information is now generating.

For those of us working in this field, the challenge is to ensure that our own alarm doesn’t lead us to do potentially harmful work. It’s a tough road with no easy answers. My own approach to dealing with these conundrums is to first follow what the evidence shows will help us achieve the outcomes that matter in terms of building a healthier information environment for our children. Second, I try to measure the impact of my work in terms of those outcomes.

For most of us who do this work, what matters is protecting people, especially young people, from the harm that misinformation causes. At the Writers’ Festival panel, everyone clearly envisioned a world in which our infosphere nurtures curiosity and helps people make good decisions that will lead to good outcomes for themselves and society. Keeping our focus on that vision will help us achieve it.