The explosion of the internet has led many to fear misinformation on the internet. A recent review article1 on misinformation and its correction has motivated this post and the next three posts. As will be seen, misinformation is not a new problem; it has been with us a long time. The problem is more psychological than technological, and it is difficult, but not impossible to correct.

Misinformation is widespread and persistent. Here are some prominent examples:

Barack Obama’s Birth Certificate. In addition to his Hawaiian birth certificate, birth announcements in the local papers, and information that his pregnant mother went into the Honolulu hospital and left it cradling a baby “birthers” claimed that he had been born outside the United States and was not eligible to be president. Undoubtedly Obama had been vetted by the Republican Party and the US government prior to the election. Still a majority of Republican primary voters believed this myth. Birthers still exist even after Obama eventually and unnecessarily produced his birth certificate.

In 1998 in the United Kingdom a study suggesting a link between a common childhood vaccine and autism generated considerable fear. The UK Department of Health along with other health organizations immediately pointed to the lack of evidence for such claims and urged parents not to reject the vaccine. The media also reported that none of the claims had been substantiated. Nevertheless in 2002 between 20% and 25% continued to believe in the vaccine-autism link. 39% to 53% of the public still believed there was equal evidence on both sides of the debate. What is even more disturbing is that a substantial number of health professionals continued to believe the misinformation (so don’t assume that your doctor is up to date on the medical literature—you might be more current than your doctor is). Eventually the fact came out that the first author of the study had failed to disclose that he had substantial conflicts of interest. His co-authors distanced themselves from the study, and the journal officially retracted the article. The first author was found guilty of misconduct and lost his license to practice medicine. The basis of this information was one article. Consider the effort in correcting this misinformation. There have been several similar incidents in the United States, and they will continue to occur.

When the few lucky North Koreans manage to escape North Korea and make it to South Korea, they go to sessions where they learn how to live in a free society. They are also provided some relevant history. In North Korea they were thoroughly indoctrinated in the belief that South Korea and the US Imperialists started the war. In spite of their total disillusionment with North Korea, to the point that they risked their lives to escape the North Korean nightmare, they find this correction of this egregious misinformation difficult to accept.

It can be extremely difficult to correct misconceptions. Advertisements for Listerine mouthwash claimed for more than 50 years that the product helped prevent or reduce the severity of colds and sore throats. After a long legal battle The U.S. Federal Trade Commission mandated corrective advertising that explicitly withdrew the deceptive claims. In spite of a $10 million dollar campaign, the corrections were modest. Overall levels of acceptance of the false claim remained high. 42% of Listerine users still believed that the product was still promoted as an effective cold remedy and more than half (57%) reported that the product’s presumed medical effects were a key factor in their purchasing decision.

So misinformation is a serious problem that is neither new nor unique to the internet. This problem is psychological, not technological. The internet is merely a delivery system.

1Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U.K.H., Seifert, C.M., , Schwarz, N., & Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13, 106-131.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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