Admit it, when you read the title, you thought this was going to be a how-to guide, right?
What I am talking about is that there are people who are intentionally spreading bad information to promote their own agenda (I will pause to let you gasp in shock). I mean, there cannot be that many people who actually believe some of the most absolutely absurd, implausible, batshit-fucking-crazy conspiracy theories that have been floating around for the past decade, right?
Please tell me that its just a few wackos on the fringes of society that have completely abandoned all logic and reason!
Okay, okay but how did this happen? How did we, as an advanced, well educated society suddenly become so… mentally pliable? How did we regress from being a country who sends people to the moon on a rocket half a century ago, to one which has a significant portion of the population who questions the shape of the globe, and debate whether gravity is a real thing? We taken communicable diseases such as smallpox and measles, which at varying point in history have literally decimated entire nations, but now we argue about whether vaccines are really necessary or are they just some big business conspiracy being waged to separate us from our hard earned money, or maybe something even more insidious?
There are a few factors at play here.
Conspiracy peddlers have always been here.
First, there have always been kooks and conspiracy theorists, and there have always been “smart marks” who will believe them. The internet, particularly social media, has simply allowed them to amplify their voices. Previously these folks were relegated to underground and self-published books and pamphlets which major publishers would never touch, which of course was part of the conspiracy against them.
But, even today, when you look at raw numbers, they still make up a small part of the population, even Alex Jones’s 2.3 million YouTube subscribers constitute less than 1% of the population, and when you compare to relative innocuous (albeit tasteless) YouTubers such as Logan Paul and his 17.5 million subscribers, it seems to put it in perspective.
The problem is the ability for these delusional thoughts to take hold in popular culture, even with a negligible amount of publicity. Going back to 2013, when social media was still emerging as an influential machine, 12 million Americans actually believed it was possible that the world is secretly controlled by a cabal of shape-shifting reptilian overlords. Now realize the rates that our social media networks have grown, and you can see how the problem is quickly growing out of control.
People want to feel special
“Get Woke!” When confronted with information which challenges the mainstream worldview, some people feel that their ability to believe this information makes them special, enlightened, chosen, woke. That they have in their mental possession, a cache of hidden, exclusive or esoteric knowledge; they feel powerful, and that power imbalance is key to convincing someone to believe something that they might otherwise dismiss, if their own lives were different at the time.
For example, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that immigrants actually add net value to the economy, a native-born, unskilled laborer would be more inclined to believe the popular talking point that immigrants are actually ruining the economy Now, if you actually clicked these links, you would see that the former takes you to a 10-year study released by the National Academy of Science, while the latter was published by Infowars. At the risk of overgeneralizing, which site do you think the aforementioned unskilled laborer will visit?
That example shows you how conspiracy peddlers rope in their adherents, by telling them something they want to hear. After a few reads which satisfy their confirmation bias, the reader becomes more pliable to more sensational stories which may be plausible, but with shoddy supporting evidence.
Now, deeper into the rabbit-hole, our hapless unskilled laborer, who was previously on the fence for who to vote for, surely does not want to risk voting for a candidate in failing health. But lo, although there was a stumble on the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton’s health seemed to rebound quickly! Wait, perhaps too quickly!
No, really…people actually believed that during the campaign, Hillary Clinton was replaced by a hyper-realistic, robotic body double!
Well, holy shit! I don’t want to vote for a robot, or someone who may be a robot! That settles it, I am voting for Donald Trump!
I am not certain a significant number of voters made their determination based on who may or may not be a robot, but that brings me to the next factor:
Most people will not believe that Hillary Clinton was ever replaced by a robot. It is simply too fantastic to believe that the technology for such a thing secretly exists in the real world, it is straight out of a comic book. So what is still fantastic is that an actual look-alike decoy was placed, but juxtaposed next to a robot, it sounds more believable. Either way, distrust has been sewn and the disinformation campaigned was successful.
Anchoring is a cognitive bias which causes people to rely too heavily on one piece of information when making a decision, it is often the first piece of information, or sometimes it is the one heard most often.
An example of anchoring being manifest in a disinformation campaign was seen during the Obama years, when the ACA was being debated in 2009. The idea of death panels killing grandma, or someone’s disabled child, because they were no longer deemed by a panel of bureaucrats to be worth saving became the cause célèbre for the nascent Tea Party. It was never true, in fact it was determined to be the Lie of the Year for 2009 by PolitiFact. It didn’t matter to many that the lie was debunked multiple times, many kept returning to it, and many still do. Ironically, it did not seem to matter to people that private insurance companies have been doing something similar for decades, but were motivated primarily by profit.
This is a factor that cannot be ignored. People are simply inundated with information, and sometimes they choose their sources poorly. It is not the individuals fault necessarily either. Everyone makes bad decisions. The mark of intelligence is a person’s ability to change opinions when confronted with new, more reliable information. To put aside biases and look at information critically and objectively is an advance cognitive technique, and people’s ability to do this varies greatly across the population.
The danger is when is a person cannot tell the difference between good and bad information sources, and that danger is compounded when they lack the ability, or more accurately are unable to assess their own ability to discern between the two. When someone chooses to believe erroneous information, and they are otherwise confident that they are correct. Which brings us to our final factor for discussion today:
Everybody lacks competence in some areas, and most people are horrible at assessing their own competence. As is often the case, the least competent in one area often assess themselves at being far superior than they actually are, simply because they lack the requisite knowledge and experience to make a valid assessment -they don’t know what they don’t know. This can occur in any area or skill set, a brand new driver might think that they are actually a superior driver, simply because they have not experienced a test of their abilities or been driving long enough to assess their skills in comparison to other drivers.
When it comes to processing the nearly unlimited information which has been made available to use, that is also a skill which must be learned. Those least competent often are so confident that their abilities are superior, not only will they refuse to change their minds when confronted with new information, they promote the information which they have chosen. Thus, the bad information is promulgated to others.
This ends Part 1 of what will be an ongoing discussion of disinformation and its effect on society.