Why is Misinformation So Easily Spread?

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On one of my long Internet evenings (the ones that usually end up with me watching “real” footage of mermaids on YouTube at 2 am), I came across a doctor who seriously believes that electromagnetic radiation is giving us cancer. In the video, he holds a mobile phone with cooking tongs so that he can keep it a safe distance from himself. Part of me thought, “I bet he doesn’t use his phone like that any other time.” But another part of me thought, “Hey, what if he really believes that he can get cancer from that phone? What if he knows something about this that no one else knows?”

So I decided to look more into what he was saying. Like many modern skeptics, he backs up his claims by quoting scientific studies. However, upon reading through some of the scientific studies in his references, it quickly becomes clear that he uses quotes out of context of the studies, and sometimes he draws his own conclusions that are not backed up by the studies themselves. In some cases, there are blatant contradictions between his conclusions and those of the studies he references.

Now, I’m not saying that electromagnetic radiation is definitely not giving us cancer. Just because studies have not been able to conclusively prove that it is, does not mean that it isn’t. But his claim is very, very concrete: electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones is killing us, for sure, the studies support it, scientists don’t want us to know about it, and we should buy his books. And his followers believe him. They’re limiting their phone usage (maybe not a bad thing?) and in some cases buying little gadgets that (miraculously) minimize radiation.

This case is not unique. The amount of information that we have instant access to today is beyond staggering, especially when we compare it to 500 years ago. But along with this information comes the problem: what to believe? Are electromagnetic devices indeed giving us all cancer? Is gluten bad for us? Is the entire medical industry lying to us about how to cure diseases so they can make a massive profit?

How much of what we read is misinformation? Are these modern skeptics pulling the wool from our eyes and showing us the truth? Or are they perpetuating myths that go viral because of the nature of modern information?

Misinformation is Not a New Phenomenon

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Thomas Edison (Louis Bachrach, Bachrach Studios, restored by Michel Vuijlsteke [Public domain])

Misinformation is certainly not a new concept. No sooner had the printing press been invented 500 years ago than the first propaganda campaigns started. The Catholic Church printed pamphlets detailing how the teachings of the reformers were falsities that brought with them eternal damnation. In the late 19th century, Thomas Edison, a proponent of direct current, spread malicious rumors and exaggerated tales about how safe direct current was compared to the horrific dangers of alternating current (see “war of the currents”). His claims were lapped up and printed by the newspapers of his day. In the 20th century, Adolf Hitler built a literal empire on the strength of propaganda.

While misinformation may not have been invented in the 21st century, what is new is how easy it is nowadays to propagate it. And, just as they have always done, people are believing it. Maybe it’s because, since the inception of mass media, there has been a wholesale tendency to believe what we read. Perhaps it stemmed from even before Johannes Gutenberg kick-started the information age, back when only monks could read and write, and the church was seen as an authority on truth. The written word was gospel (pun intended).

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In more recent times, we learned knowledge in schools from books. Newspapers and magazines were regarded as the authorities on their subjects. Encyclopedias on bookshelves were the final word on all kinds of facts. We learned to revere the printed word and to believe the messages broadcast in official news programs on TV and radio.

Why? Because for the longest time, to publish a book, one had to be an expert on a matter. To compile TV and radio news reports, one had to be a well-trained journalist with a thorough knowledge of a specific subject. To write an encyclopedia entry, you had to have some academic knowledge of the topic. We have come to expect — whether correctly or incorrectly — that media packaged in certain ways is factual and truthful.

It’s exactly this view that leads to misinformation: that print and broadcast media — and their modern digital brethren — are bastions of truth.

Information Flood

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The primary problem is the sheer volume of data we have to process on a daily basis. We now have all this information at our fingertips, which should theoretically mean that we are better at assessing the veracity of published information. Instead, it has the effect that we rarely have time to fact-check, follow cross-references, or even simply check sources. We’re at a point where we’re passively consuming information, skimming headlines and paragraphs and believing that we are taking away the salient points of the information.

The problem is exacerbated further by mainstream media outlets fighting for survival in a digital world: they want views and clicks just as much as any aspiring blogger. Exposure is given to the studies with the catchiest, most surprising, or most counter-intuitive conclusions. This in and of itself would be fine, but often the studies these reports are based on are incomplete, or they explicitly state in their conclusions that more study is required, and this isn’t always clearly indicated in the news story.

Take a relatively harmless example of a “fun” news story that popped up in 2018. Several outlets reported on a study that found “night owls” have lower life expectancy than “morning larks”. The story, of course, is of great interest to both night owls and morning larks (therefore covering everyone) and it was based on science! However, upon closer examination, there were several flaws in the study itself, which were not mentioned by the outlets. How many people who read those stories questioned what they read? And how many even took time to read the original study? I’d hazard to guess only the minority of readers.

When scientific studies are used to prove points that are not actually fully supported by the studies in the first place, or the experts use bits and pieces of different studies to cobble together a completely new theory, the results can be more severe than in the “harmless” example above.

Anyone Can Publish

There’s one additional factor at play here: how easy it is to publish information. Anyone can do it. With the rise of blogging, vlogging, wikis, self-publishing, and podcasting, anyone can produce somewhat professional-looking content with very little overhead or effort (heck, I’m doing it right now!). And all this information is put into the mix when you do a Google search.

Just a decade ago, Google was a profoundly useful tool. You could find what you were searching for, and usually you didn’t have too many options to sift through. Nowadays, a simple search returns vast amounts of results. While a huge selection of answers to a simple question should theoretically give you ample options to solve your problem, you now have to go through pages and pages of information. Fact is, most of us don’t get past the first page. And almost everyone providing the information on those first few pages of results has an agenda. Usually, that agenda is selling something to you, be it their product, services, or ideology. These days, information is very rarely provided for information’s sake.

The sad truth about the information highway is that it is littered with articles, blogs, and videos purporting to be fact-based, but that are actually putting forth half-researched or vague information, one-sided opinion, or both. More articles and blogs are created based on this information, and the result is a loop that leads to further misinformation, and still more posts based on bad information.

What Can We Do?

The only sure fact in the modern information age is that there is too much information out there, and limited time to take it all in. There are some things we have to take at face value because we don’t have the time to go down every rabbit hole. But knowing this is already half the battle won.

Understanding how much we know — and don’t know — is key to making sense of this new world. We have to be able to estimate our own level of knowledge or expertise on a specific topic. If we see some stories about something — let’s say, the dangers of electromagnetic radiation — then we should evaluate the feasibility of the claims on a superficial level. If it concerns you or fascinates you, or you want to have an informed opinion on it, then absolutely delve into it. Look at the studies quoted by the stories, go to the referenced books, and for the love of all things good, read opposing views.

If you decide that it’s not that important to you, or you don’t have time, then simply acknowledge the issue and move on without reading up on it or researching it any further. But know that this is a potential blind spot in your knowledge, and certainly don’t go arguing about it in the comments of social media posts!

Modern society demands a healthy skepticism from its constituents. The Internet has enabled us to access information we did not have just a few decades ago, and this helps to keep governments, corporations, scientists, pharmaceutical companies, and all kinds of organizations accountable. This is our responsibility. But we also have a responsibility to do it in an informed way, with arguments based on sound facts or theories. Otherwise, we are not holding up our part of the bargain.

Originally published at perennial-xennial.com on March 9, 2019.

Tech writer by day. Host of The Germany Experience Podcast. Hobby musician. Gamer.

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