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Making sense of misinformation part three: Is misinformation getting worse?

The short answer: yes. Over the past ten years, the challenge of misinformation has entered the public sphere. But Misinformation isn’t a new problem. Nor is it a new term.

According to Google Ngram Viewer, the word ‘misinformation’ surfaced in the early 19th century. Indeed, the 15th volume of Encyclopaedia Perthensis, published in 1816, defined misinformation as “false intelligence” or “false accounts”. Use of the word plateaued in around 2003, but usage increased again after the bombshells of 2016. And it shows no sign of slowing down.

So what has happened in the last two decades to spark such a spike in misinformation? It is, of course, a significant shift in our ‘information environment’. 

The rise of the internet

In 2000, the World Bank ran a study on internet use across the globe. The results came in at a humble 7%. A mere 20 years later and that number is close to 60%. Since then, Wikipedia was founded (2001), Twitter was created (2006) and WordPress was launched (2003). Where the vast majority of us once got our news and information from a small number of common, trusted sources (such as newspapers, journals and books – all of which must go through varyingly rigorous publication methods), suddenly anyone could publish from the comfort of their own home. And they can publish anything. 

The danger in these self-published articles is that they can, more often than not, produce websites which have the look and ‘feel’ of a mainstream publication. That, coupled with the billions of people around the world relying on their social media news feeds to receive the news, results in millions of people putting their trust in false information. 

The social media news feeds, of course, have a huge part to play in the dissemination of misinformation. It is their algorithms which determine what content we see on our news feeds. They are not programmed to promote content which will keep us well informed, rather, they show us the content which they think will keep us on the platform longer. Basically, content which drives profits. 

The rise of conspiracy theorists

We can also understand why it’s gotten worse when we think about conspiracy thinkers. But what makes people vulnerable to conspiracy thinking?

There are 3Cs that increase vulnerability to conspiracy thinking:

  • Comprehension: When we are faced with more information than our brains can handle, we’re vulnerable to conspiracy theories because they help us to connect all these unconnected dots – which our brains are wired to do from an evolutionary perspective.
  • Control: If we’re faced with a crisis (like a pandemic!) conspiracy theories leverage our desire for control by pointing the finger at a scapegoat for us to focus our fear and anger on.
  • Community: When we are isolated from the social groups our brains are hardwired to crave, we are vulnerable to the pull of conspiracy theory communities which provide us with a sense of comradeship.

Think about the COVID-19 pandemic. We were continuously bombarded with new information about the virus, and as we were forced into isolation, our sense of control and community were taken away. And where did most of us turn for comfort? Our social media feeds, along with the thousands of misinformation narratives being promoted on our news feeds.

If you haven’t already, go back and read part one and two of our ‘Making sense of misinformation’ series (‘What is misinformation?’) and (‘Why are people falling for misinformation?’) To find out more about how our anti-misinformation services can help your organisation, email contact@lynn.global.

This article was written by Stefan Rollnick, Head of the Misinformation Cell at Lynn.

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