The Origins of Misinformation

The immediately preceding post introduced the problem of misinformation. This post discusses the origins of misinformation. The sources discussed here are rumors and fiction, government and politicians, vested interests, and the media. This post, as was the preceding post and the next post, draws heavily on a review article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.1

Although the believability of information is one factor determining the propagation of information, there is a strong preference to pass information that will invoke an emotional response in the recipient, regardless of the truth value of the information. People also extract information from fictional sources, both in literature, the movies, and the theater arts. People rely on misinformation acquired from clearly fictitious stories to respond to quiz question even when the misinformation contradicted common knowledge and when people where aware that the source was fictional.2 These effects of fictional misinformation are difficult to correct. Prior warnings were ineffective in reducing the acquisition of misinformation from fiction, and that misinformation was reduced, but not eliminated only when participants were instructed to actively monitor the contents they were reading and to press a key whenever they encountered a piece of misinformation.3 Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear misrepresented the science of global change yet was introduced as “scientific” evidence into a U.S. Senate committee.

Before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, U.S. Government officials proclaimed that there was no doubt that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The Bush administration also juxtaposed Iraq and the 9/11 terrorist attacks as the frontline in the “War on Terror.” Moreover, it implied that it had intelligence linking Iraq to al–Qaida. All of this turned out to be misinformation, yet large segments of the American public continued to believe these claims. Moreover, 20% to 30% believed that WMDs had actually been discovered in Iraq after the invasion and about half the public believed in the links between Iraq and al–Qaeda.

In the political arena Sarah Palin made the claim that Obama’s health care plan had provisions for “death panels.” In five weeks 86% of American had heard this claim and half either believed this myth or were uncertain as to its veracity. Although the public is aware of politically motivated misinformation, particularly during election campaigns, they are poor in identifying specific instances of misinformation, being unable to distinguish between false and correct information.

There is also ample evidence of concerted efforts by vested interests to disseminate misinformation. This willful manufacture of mistaken beliefs has earned its own term, “agnogenesis.” In 2006 a U.S. Federal Court ruled that cigarette manufacturers were guilty of conspiring to deny, distort, and minimize the effects of cigarette smoking. In the early 1990s, the American Petroleum Institute, the Western Fuels Association, and The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC) drafted and promoted campaigns to case doubt on the science of climate change. These industry groups have formed alliances with conservative think tanks, using a handful of scientist as spokesmen. More than 90% of books published between 1972 and 2005 that expressed skepticism about environmental issues have been linked to conservative think tanks. This review is hardly exhaustive and supplies only a hint of the magnitude of this type of misinformation.

The media, defined roughly as print newspapers and magazines, radio, TV, and the internet are also a source of misinformation. There are a variety of factors at play here. Journalists with weak backgrounds in the subjects they are addressing can oversimplify the topic they are addressing. There is also a strong motivation to sensationalize their stories. Sometimes, in an effort to be fair and balanced, they can be misleading. For example, an overwhelming majority (more than 95%) of actively publishing climate scientists agree on the fundamental fact that the globe is warming and that this warming is due to greenhouse-gas emissions caused by humans. Yet, the media, in an attempt to be even-handed will give equal time to individuals, often without appropriate backgrounds, who hold a contrary view. Consequently, the public misses the relative weighting of opinion among knowledgeable scientists.

There are also differences among media outlets as to how much misinformation they disseminate. Research4 has shown that the level of belief in misinformation among segments of the public varies according to preferred news outlets. The continuum runs from Fox News (whose viewers are the most misinformed on most issues) to National Public Radio (whose listeners are the least misinformed overall).

This blog has argued that the internet is not the cause of misinformation, but merely the means of communicating misinformation. A good argument can be made that this is not entirely true. There is a phenomenon known as selective exposure that can produce fractionation. Blogs and other social media tend to link to blogs and social media having similar viewpoints and to exclude opposing views. This can lead to “cyber-ghettos.” It is likely that this bears some responsibility for extreme divergent views in the political arena and an unwillingness to compromise or negotiate.

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.

2Marsh, E.J., Mease, M.L., & Roediger, H.L. III. (2003). Learning Fact from Fiction. Memory & Cognition, 49, 519-536.

3Marsh, E.J., & Fazio, L.K. (2006). Learning Errors from Fiction: Difficulties in Reducing Reliance on Fictional Sources. Memory & Cognition, 34, 1140-1149.

4For example Kull, S., Ramsay, C., & Lewis, E. (2003). Misperceptions, the media, and the Iraq war. Political Science Quarterly, 118, 569-598.

© Douglas Griffith and, 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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