America’s misinformation problem, explained

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On the heels of a presidential election defined by “fake news” and a Russian misinformation campaign, we’re left wondering whether politics can still be anchored to something like a common reality. There is so much noise, so much nonsense, that it’s increasingly hard to distinguish fact from fiction, truth from falsehood.
A forthcoming book, titled Misinformation and Mass Audiences, is one of the first attempts to systematically analyze how misinformation functions in the modern age. One of the authors is Emily Thorson, a political scientist at Syracuse University. Thorson’s focus is on how misinformation and misperception works in American politics.
I reached out to her to discuss the book and its findings. I asked her why misinformation is so dangerous, where it comes from, who spreads it, and if the problem is worse today than in the past. I also wanted to know if the misinformation problem is more about our evolving media technology or our innate tendency to search for facts that align with our preexisting beliefs.
“People have always been susceptible to misinformation,” she told me. “The real challenge now lies in the immediacy, scope, and ease of dissemination we now see with new technologies like social media.”
Our full conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows.

The misinformation problem, explained

Sean Illing

What is misinformation? And how is it different from disinformation?

Emily Thorson

Misinformation is false information that's out there in the world — anything from rumors to deliberate propaganda to unintentional errors. Disinformation, as we see it, is about the intention of the distributor. While misinformation may not be intended to deceive, disinformation is distributed intentionally and often strategically.

Sean Illing

Why is it dangerous?

Emily Thorson

Misinformation that reaches a wide swath of society can have all sorts of downstream effects on attitudes and behavior. Whether and how a piece of misinformation is dangerous depends entirely on context. Misinformation about whether a celebrity is dead or not is harmless, but misinformation about the effectiveness of a dangerous homeopathic treatment could have much more serious effects.

Sean Illing

What about political misinformation — why is that so problematic?

Emily Thorson

It depends on what kind of political misinformation it is, on its source, and on how widely it’s distributed. A fake news article about a safe congressional incumbent is going to have much different (and likely smaller) effects on attitudes and behavior than if a Supreme Court justice made a false claim about the Affordable Health Care Act.
I think a better question to ask is “under what conditions can political misinformation be dangerous”?

Sean Illing

What’s the answer to that question?

Emily Thorson

Misinformation is most dangerous when it causes people to change their behavior. This is why medical misinformation is so concerning — it has direct effects on behavior. With political misinformation, the connection is much weaker, and that’s because preexisting political beliefs are so strong that almost no piece of information — true or false — will change how we vote. Our partisanship even shapes whether we are exposed to that misinformation in the first place.
So I would argue that political misinformation is most dangerous not in high-profile partisan races, but when the misinformation is about policies and issues where people don't have strong preexisting opinions. To give a real-world example, if misinformation about voter ID laws causes people to stay home from the polls, that is a serious problem. That’s the kind of thing we should be worried about.

Sean Illing

Where does misinformation come from today? How does it spread?

Emily Thorson

This really varies depending on the area. Political misinformation has certainly gotten a lot of attention over the last year or so, but there's also plenty of misinformation in the realm of health, science, and nonpolitical news. And the motives behind the production of this misinformation is all over the place.
There’s the profit-driven “fake news” farms, but a lot of misinformation is less intentional. Political satire unintentionally creates misperceptions in readers and viewers all the time. We see this a lot with scientific findings, too. Misperceptions about science can spread through social networks — not necessarily because people are deliberately sharing misinformation, but because scientific findings are difficult to understand and change over time.

Sean Illing

What does the data tell us about how public opinion is shaped by misinformation?

Emily Thorson

I hate to keep preaching “context matters,” but it really does. One of the most important factors in whether misinformation creates misperceptions is a person’s preexisting attitudes and opinions. We talk a lot about political misinformation, but it has relatively small effects in reality, because we know that information — true or false — rarely changes partisan attitudes. But in other realms, like health, misinformation can really change behaviors.

Sean Illing

Is the misinformation problem worse today than in the past?
Emily Thorson
Most people who study this will tell you that we don’t have the data to answer that.
Sean Illing
It’s hard for me to believe that the problem isn’t worse today. How could it not be? With the internet and social media, we’re awash in information, much of it produced outside of anything like an objective process. It’s as if we’ve engineered a world designed to produce misinformation.

Emily Thorson

You’re in good company — a very recent Pew survey of experts found that they were pretty much split down the middle on whether this is a problem we can solve. We tried to emphasize in the book that nothing is inevitable, that we can still get our arms around this problem.
Scholars have spent decades understanding how people process, understand, and use information. We have a lot of accumulated knowledge about this stuff. We can build interventions into the system. Is there a single magic bullet? No, but there are steps we can take to make a real difference.

Sean Illing

What kinds of steps?

Emily Thorson

One strategy is to disincentivize people from making false statements in the first place. A second is to issue immediate corrections, although the efficacy will vary based on the type of misinformation you’re correcting — for example, there is evidence of this being a successful strategy for misinformation in the health realm, but for political misinformation the evidence is mixed.

Are Americans unusually gullible?

Sean Illing

How likely are Americans to believe misinformation? Have we become more or less gullible over time?

Emily Thorson

We’re careful not to suggest that we’re more or less gullible today. People have always been susceptible to misinformation. I think the real challenge now lies in the immediacy, scope, and ease of dissemination we now see with new technologies like social media.
Trying to figure out in what circumstances people are more likely to accept misinformation leads to some interesting territory. We know that context matters a lot, but also that there are cognitive, linguistic, social, and other factors that come into play. How people process information changes based on all kinds of factors.
If something is repeated over and over again, if it’s couched in a narrative or storyline, if it comes from a familiar source — all of this influences whether we accept or reject information.

Sean Illing

You’re describing what I’d consider a human nature problem. People aren’t really wired to interpret the world honestly. Most of us have a vague worldview and we search for facts that confirm it and run away from facts that don’t.

Emily Thorson

Absolutely, the problem of misinformation is compounded by our tendency to look for information that confirms our beliefs. But tendencies are not inevitabilities. We also have a tendency to want to eat nothing but sugar and fat, but many of us are able to tamp down that instinct and eat a salad every once in a while. And our salad consumption can be increased by all sort of factors — peer pressure, public service messages, changes in the food production system.
Similarly, when it comes to information consumption, it’s possible to find ways to encourage our better instincts and constrain our worst ones.

What misinformation does to our politics

Sean Illing

What has misinformation done to our politics?

Emily Thorson

We don’t really have the information to answer this question because we’ve never lived in a world without misinformation. There is no counterfactual. It may take a different form now than it did a hundred years ago, but misinformation has always existed in our political system.
Instead, we might ask how and why our political communication systems have evolved such that misinformation has become a central and divisive topic of conversation for some and what can we learn from it.

Sean Illing

I think the answer to that is that misinformation was a big part of the 2016 presidential election — and people are outraged by that. How big a role do you think it played?

Emil Thorson

We don’t really have the information to answer this question yet. The answer also depends on what you mean by “role” — there are all sorts of ways that misinformation can matter, from shaping what the mainstream media talks about to actually changing election outcomes.

Sean Illing

Is there a consensus among the people who contributed to the book about whether a democratic society is sustainable if people can’t distinguish fact from fiction or misinformation from information?

Emily Thorson

I’m not sure there was a consensus on that.

Sean Illing

Then what’s your answer to that?

Emily Thorson

No, I don’t think we can sustain a democratic society if citizens can’t distinguish fact from fiction, but I don’t think we are close to that yet. It’s easy to focus on the blatant uses of misinformation, but I’d encourage people to think about all the situations in which the truth does matter — not just because it’s a hopeful exercise, but also because those situations can be a great source of ideas for how to address the problem of misinformation.

Is there anything we can do?

Sean Illing

What’s the solution to the misinformation problem? Better media literacy? An improved public education system? Internet regulation?

Emily Thorson

All of those and none of those. Again, not to sound like a broken record, but it depends on context. Thinking of misinformation as one big monolithic problem that requires one big monolithic solution is counterproductive. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all fix.

Sean Illing

What's the single most important thing we can do?

Emily Thorson

The 2016 election and the whole “fake news” thing has made people concerned about misinformation, and that’s a good thing. But I’ve seen two different reactions that worry me. The first is when people just throw up their hands and declare we are living in a “post-truth” age. That’s simply not true. Reality continues to matter in every aspect of our lives — in the doctor’s office, at your car dealership, and even in most political debates.
The second reaction is the idea that there is a single solution to misinformation — that it lies in a new Facebook innovation, or even a new election. Misinformation is a complicated problem and we can’t solve it with a magic browser innovation or a new Facebook algorithm.
The single most important thing we can do is to not panic. Instead, we need to take a step back and think carefully about when misinformation is a problem and what we can do about it.

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