Brendan Nyhan and Yusaku Horiuchi write: State-sponsored propaganda like the recently unmasked @TEN_GOP Twitter account is of very real concern for our democracy. But we should not allow the debate over Russian interference to crowd out concerns about homegrown misinformation, which was vastly more prevalent during and after the 2016 election.
Why is misinformation so prevalent and widely believed in U.S. politics?
One explanation for the growth of misinformation is the way people are exposed to — and consume — news today. In particular, concerns have grown about “echo chambers.” According to this theory, people are, intentionally or unintentionally, surrounding themselves with news from like-minded sources. In such environments, people may tend to uncritically believe news content from outlets they trust while dismissing or ignoring information from sources they dislike. If this is true, politicians and commentators may be able to effectively mislead the public by promoting misinformation through allied news outlets.
But when one of us (Horiuchi) and his Dartmouth undergraduate co-authors tested this hypothesis in a recent study, they found that the source of the misinformation they showed to study participants (an incorrect news excerpt about the Affordable Care Act) didn’t matter very much. Regardless of the respondents’ party identification or ideology, attributing the article to Fox or CNN had relatively little effect on the news article’s perceived accuracy.
The problem instead was that people were surprisingly vulnerable to believing the misinformation even when it came from an uncongenial source. Far more believed the false claim (that people would lose health coverage from their parents’ insurance plans when they turned 18 under proposed legislation) when they read an article making the claim. In other words, they swallowed the news story without carefully considering whether it was true.
In this sense, concerns about echo chambers may be overstated — a finding that is consistent with other evidence. The problem isn’t that we’re only willing to listen to sources that share our political viewpoint; it’s that we’re too vulnerable as human beings to misinformation of all sorts. Given the limitations of human knowledge and judgment, it is not clear how to best protect people from believing false claims. [Continue reading…]
For as long as there are masses of people who can easily be deceived, there will continue to be a market for deception.
The focus these days might be on so-called fake news, but the practice of deception extends far outside news and social media. Indeed, we live in economies, societies, and cultures, where through commerce, political structures, and religious institutions, deception plays a role in most human relationships.
The professed shock at Russian interference in U.S. elections while being a response to a genuine threat to democracy, is also often disingenuous in a context where native truthfulness is often in such short supply.
Are we to believe that there is something intrinsically less harmful about being lied to by an American rather than a Russian?
Flip the issue on its head and the issue is not about protecting people from believing what turns out to be false, but rather a much more far reaching challenge: how to cultivate and propagate a large-scale interest in the discovery of what is true?
The lack of such an interest is the very thing that makes falsehoods so easy to package and sell.