Lies and distortions don’t just afflict the ignorant. The more you know, the more vulnerable you can be to infection
by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska is a science writer and social entrepreneur working at the intersection of technology, research and mental health. She is the editor of the mental health anthology What Doesn’t Kill You: 15 Stories of Survival (2020). She lives in London.
Edited by Marina Benjamin
There’s a new virus in town and it’s not fooling around. You can catch it through face-to-face contact or digitally – that is, via a human or bot. Few of us possess immunity, some are even willing hosts; and, despite all we’ve learned about it, this virus is proving more cunning and harder to eradicate than anyone could have expected.
Misinformation isn’t new, of course. Fake news was around even before the invention of the printing press, although the first large-scale journalistic sham occurred in 1835, when the New York Sun published six articles announcing the discovery of life on the Moon (specifically, unicorns, bat men and bipedal beavers). Consider, too, early modern witch hunts, or those colonial myths that depicted slaves as a different species; the back-and-forth volleys of anti-Jewish and anti-German propaganda during the world wars, McCarthyism’s Red Scare, even communism’s utopian narratives. History teems with deceit.
What’s different today is the speed, scope and scale of misinformation, enabled by technology. Online media has given voice to previously marginalised groups, including peddlers of untruth, and has supercharged the tools of deception at their disposal. The transmission of falsehoods now spans a viral cycle in which AI, professional trolls and our own content-sharing activities help to proliferate and amplify misleading claims. These new developments have come on the heels of rising inequality, falling civic engagement and fraying social cohesion – trends that render us more susceptible to demagoguery. Just as alarming, a growing body of research over the past decade is casting doubt on our ability – even our willingness – to resist misinformation in the face of corrective evidence.
The classic experiments to correct misinformation date to the late 1980s. Subjects were given news briefs from the scene of a fictional warehouse fire, one of which mentions a closet with volatile materials – cans of oil paint and gas cylinders – others report ‘thick, oily smoke’, ‘sheets of flames’ and ‘toxic fumes’ that put the firefighters’ lives at risk. A further brief cites the police investigator on the case stating that the closet was, in fact, empty, before the report ends with the fire finally put out.
Having read the briefs, subjects had to answer a series of questions meant to probe their grasp of the correction made by the police investigator. It seems a simple test yet, across a multitude of studies, people repeatedly fail it. In one experiment, as many as 90 per cent of the subjects linked the fire’s toxic nature or intensity to the cans of oil paint and gas cylinders, despite none being found in the closet. More surprisingly, when asked directly, most of these participants readily acknowledged the empty closet. Researchers have reported similar results many times, including using blatantly direct retractions (‘there were no cans of paint or gas cylinders’). Yet no matter how clear the correction, typically more than half of subjects’ references to the original misinformation persist. What’s remarkable is that people appear to cling to the falsehood while knowing it to be false. This suggests that, even if successfully debunked, myths can still creep into our judgments and colour our decisions – an outcome referred to in the literature as ‘the continued influence effect’.
Why does this happen? According to Jason Reifler, professor of political science at the University of Exeter, we tend to take incoming information at face value, ‘because the existence of human society is predicated on the ability of people to interact and [on] expectations of good faith.’ Moreover, myths can take on subtle, crafty forms that feign legitimacy, making them hard to expose without careful analysis or fact checks. This means that those of us too dazed by the job of living to exert an extra mental effort can easily succumb to deception. And once a falsehood has slipped in and become encoded in memory – even weakly – it can prove remarkably sticky and resistant to correction…