It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble it’s what you know for sure that just ain't so - Humorist Josh Billings
Information and Misinformation are Circulated at a Very Fast Pace
How do we decide what to believe and what not to believe? And once we form an opinion, how likely is it that we’ll change our minds?
We’re all subject to emotionally based reasoning, biases and faulty reasoning. When we make a decision, such as whether or not to vaccinate, we evaluate a barrage of information through our individual filters.
There's a great cost to misinformation- a cost to society and therefore a cost to each of us. Manipulation amplifies our fears and stories that intentionally provoke an emotional response make misinformation hard to correct. Misinformation creates doubt and suspicion. 'What if it does change my genes/cause infertility/cause cancer?’
Fred lives in a small town in a mountain area, drives 50 miles every day to work in a hospital, and is choosing not to get vaccinated. He attends a local church of like-minded people who believe serious effects and deaths of healthcare workers caused by the vaccine are being concealed as part of a larger vaccine-injury cover-up. They believe everyone is being fooled by mainstream media except for themselves and others who share their beliefs. They see themselves as a brave minority, almost counter-culture heroes, standing up for truth and right.
Fred and his friends have lots of “facts”, stories, and examples to maintain their beliefs.
Recently several members of the church contracted COVID after an indoor concert but vaccinations have not increased.
Headlines containing the words “cover-up” grab interest and appeal to the conspiracy theorist in all of us. The most compelling stories evoke fear and outrage. These stories have always been with us and have enduring appeal. Who has not heard that the government is hiding info about aliens, using aborted fetuses, stealing human organs, and lying about foreign policy?
Conspiracists believe they possess secret important knowledge about world events unknown to others, even experts. People who believe in one conspiracy are more likely to believe in multiple conspiracies.
Conspiracies are hard to combat. Even providing factual information does not dispel conspiracy beliefs. The person presenting facts may be seen as in on the conspiracy. The conspiracist simply digs in and strengthens their convictions.
Confirmation Bias and Selective Exposure
Our worldviews affect what we are likely to believe and what we are likely to reject. There’s a tendency to give greater credence to information that aligns with our beliefs and to ignore information that doesn't fit with our beliefs, say, around civil liberties and social responsibilities.
Selective exposure allows us to:
avoid information contrary to what we believe
perceive information selectively
forget information we disagree with (selective retention)
Religious misinformation is propagated by influential religious leaders sharing false rumors and even lies. Some of this misinformation worldwide is tragic, such as urging parents not to vaccinate their children against polio. These leaders have influence, a ready platform, and cultural competence with their followers, often using strategically-chosen, emotive language. Some people will believe a religious leader over a healthcare professional. They adhere to a type of groupthink, which promotes loyalty, cohesion, and harmony of the group over individual disagreement.
Identifiable Victim Bias
Anecdotes and stories that cause emotional arousal spread faster and are “sticky”. We connect with stories we can relate to, like a nurse who fainted after receiving a shot, or an anti-vaxxer radio personality who died from COVID. We’re more likely to respond strongly to a single, personable example than to broad statistics.
Let’s say a 56 yr old doctor in Florida dies 2 weeks after getting the vaccine. This may be used by some to confirm that vaccines are dangerous, even if there’s no causal relationship. Headlines may spin the story either way, for example, “Doctor dies from vaccine” which is more causal than “Doctor dies after receiving vaccine” (still implied).
People can underestimate or overestimate their risk.
Vaccine skeptics believe they won’t get sick, that COVID is “just the flu” and the risk of getting the vaccine is greater than the risk of getting COVID. Over-estimaters may mask while walking alone outside.
Social media is perfect for spreading fake news . A small group called the “dirty dozen” are labelled superspreaders by the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
They’re said to spread 65% of misinformation, lies, and propaganda about vaccines.
Some are motivated by profit, and some include disgraced doctors. Many have innocuous sounding names, such as “Physicians for Informed Consent” and “Freedom Angels”, deliberately leaving the word “vaccine” out of their names so as not to flag social media rules.
Strategies for Evaluating News
FACT: Be well read and read from a variety of sources. Foster a healthy skepticism, a critical eye, and actively question what you see. Click on the sources and follow to the end. If you’re unsure if it’s valid, then don’t share it.
FACT: Be aware of cognitive fluency, which is when we tend to read articles that are considered cognitively easy-to-read, including even spending more time on an article with a pleasing font.
FACT: Read more than the headlines, and don’t share just because one sentence or a headline is attention-grabbing or clever. Watch out for overly emotional language, excessive explanation points, misspellings, tabloid style, and sensationalism.
FACT: Don’t be fooled by look-alike sources- for example, Abcnews.com is not really the URL for ABC news but it looks official and sounds like legitimate a news site.
FACT: Think before you share. Hold people you hear news from accountable. Let's all ask each other “What is your source?” Fact-check at Snopes.com, Factcheck.org, and other fact check sites.
How do you recognize fake news, and what biases are you aware of?