Making sense of misinformation part two: Why are people falling for misinformation?

You’re five, you sit down on the circle carpet with the rest of your classmates in Reception, you accept the little carton of milk given to you by your teacher and drink it without question – whether you like it or not. Why? “Because milk,” your teacher tells you, “will give you strong bones.”

Sadly, what your teacher told you was a common piece of misinformation. And you fell for it. In fact, there’s no concrete evidence that milk doesn’t give you stronger bones – but neither is there evidence to support it. You may even be reading this article now in complete disbelief, despite the wealth of information supporting the claim. 

But why?

The answer, of course, is simple: you trusted your teacher. You believed they wouldn’t lie to you. For what it’s worth, they didn’t believe they were lying, either. Which is exactly how misinformation spreads. 

And it is spreading faster. This is because of two principal reasons. One is ancient and the other very modern: 

  • Reason one: evolution. Humans have developed to be social animals; we take our cues on whether information is reliable from the people we trust (such as your teacher, your parents, your friends), not just based on rational analysis. This can result in us accepting or believing information that is far from factual.
  • Reason two: algorithms. Social media companies have created algorithms which promote content they think we are ‘interested in’. ‘Interest’ equates to audience interaction. In practice, this often means divisive content which people comment and argue about.

Look at these reasons on your average social media feed. When someone you trust reposts a news article, you are biologically inclined to believe what they are sharing. Add this to the fact that they might have found this article, not from careful research, but because an algorithm thought it might grab their attention.

Who is most prone to falling for misinformation?

As for those who fall for misinformation, they lie on a spectrum: from non-political to intensely political. For instance, misinformation is often believed by people who lack knowledge/expertise in a particular field; you’d sooner believe an economist’s opinion on the cost of living crisis than your own. Similarly, people suffering with anxiety about a particular topic (e.g. health anxiety) may be inclined to believe the worst when they read it – think back to the vaccine misinfo which spread two years ago. There are also people who passively scroll through social media to find news instead of deliberately seeking it out from trusted outlets. 

Others fall for misinformation because it falls within their worldview. Those particularly vulnerable to falling for dangerous misinformation are the conspiracy thinkers. Conspiracy thinkers see the world through the lens of competition for resources (e.g. money, power, sex), they are prone to a divisive ‘us vs them’ mentality, and they’re more likely to connect unconnected dots, seeing a master plan where there is none.

Essentially, where disinformation is created with malicious intent, misinformation is often spread through fear and ignorance. And the more the world begins to rely on social media as its primary newsource, the more powerful it becomes. Therefore, the question now is: how do we combat it?

If you haven’t already, go back and read part one in our ‘Making sense of misinformation’ series (‘What is misinformation?’) and keep your eyes peeled for part three (‘Is the misinformation problem getting worse?’) 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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