Misinformation is easily amplified when it engages a flight or fight response, when we react quickly and automatically. The good news is there has been a shift in how the media deals with it

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

I am usually invited on this kind of panel because a book I wrote, A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World, and the work I do is focused on how we can create a healthy information environment in which false information has little room to develop and few mechanisms to spread. The other experts I appeared with work in the responsive area – how we intervene with those peddling false information, including those threatening or using violence, and what we can do for people being manipulated by the harmful narratives of these people. The space they focus on is intense – occupied by small groups of people at the extreme end of false information narratives and conspiracy theories. It’s scary when it erupts and those small groups cause great harm to some people. When these false information users spread it into mainstream discourse, it undermines people’s concept and understanding of good information. At the panel, there was naturally a lot of talk about the role of social media.

Social media allows people to spread false information further and faster than ever. Those who built and maintain this technology have created a very smooth path for those who use false information to reach many more people. But why do we want to share information, especially false information, so much?

False information is spread by people easily because much of it engages a flight or fight response. It is alarming and upsetting. It engenders a sense of fear or 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 the very physical and intense feelings that result – in most cases liking, sharing or retweeting it (either to agree or disagree). When we take this action, we satisfy a biologically driven but unconscious need to do something, and often that action will give us a sense of being safe. 

Our autonomic nervous system – our brain, senses and emotions – drive reactive and automatic responses. Responses that lead us to amplify false information. The people who create false information, and social media companies, are aware of this reaction and have capitalised on it. The more people are exposed to this false information, and the more they are exposed to it from different sources, the more it strengthens the sense it is true. These many alarming stories contribute to wider false and harmful narratives and carry false information to more people.

Having feelings and acting on them when presented with alarming information is a core 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 it is being exploited by people wanting to make money from social media and false information. 

For most of us doing this work, what matters is protecting people, especially young people, from the harm that false information is causing

Knowing how this thinking system works is useful. When we do, we can learn why it is useful to pause between information, feelings, and reactions. Be a bit wary when you feel alarmed or excited by information and want to share it, and be wary of the feelings you get after you do. It’s something that researchers, investigators, and writers interested in false information need to do too, so we can avoid  becoming part of the problem.

The actions taken by people who use false information are also alarming. Reporting on and researching false information has also become alarming in recent times, with threats of violence, as well as actual violence. I point this out because the people who are interested in reducing the harm caused by false information are people too. We have nervous systems that respond to alarming information with a shot of adrenaline induced by the high stakes. If we don’t tread carefully, the alarm we experience can lead us to act in a couple of ways that can be unhelpful to our core motivation of overcoming false information. 

Problem one – we can amplify specific instances of false information. 

When we are alarmed, or just doing our jobs, we can become prone to sharing the actual false information itself, often for the purposes of refuting it. However, in a massively noisy and overwhelming information environment, where people can 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 think about. Consider how easily false information about vaccinations come to mind. 

The good news is that I have noticed a concerted shift in how people in the media and research talk about specific instances of false information. Even a year or two ago, people would have repeated false information when reporting on it, for the purposes of accuracy, but there has now been a significant reduction in that practice. Many in the media now know about amplification effects, source confusion, and the risk they themselves will become the source of false information. It’s heartening to know there has been a positive shift in understanding what not to do with false information. Interventions such as pre-brunking or inoculation and truth sandwiches are better known and are being used more often.

Problem two is a little tricker to address – false information researchers, writers and communicators become part of the alarmist information machine.

Sometimes, our own alarm about false information can lead us to become the source of new alarming content – this time about false information as an issue in itself. 

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

Conversely, ‘pluralistic ignorance’ happens when people who don’t believe false information get the false impression that many others hold these ideas, and get the sense there must be something behind it if so many people are interested. As a result, they shift their position to be more in line with the untrue information. This is one way extreme conspiracy theories and narratives can end up being used by people in politics, as with Gerry Brownlee’s “huge mistake”. While Brownlee may have used false information in error, other people in politics may use it more cynically. Constantly talking about conspiracy theories and false information in the public, without a sense of scale, can also generate a sense of panic in those who are not involved. 

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

For those of us working in this area the challenge is to ensure our own alarm is not leading us to do potentially harmful work. This is a tricky path to walk with no easy answers. My own approach to managing these conundrums is first to follow what the evidence indicates will help us achieve the outcomes that matter in terms of building a healthier information environment for our kids. Second, I try to measure the impact of my work in terms of these outcomes.

For most of us doing this work, what matters is protecting people, especially young people, from the harm that false information is causing. At the Writers Festival panel, everyone clearly envisioned a world where our infosphere nourishes curiosity and helps people make good decisions that will lead to good outcomes for them and society. If we keep our focus on that vision, it will help us achieve it.

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