For a year now we have seen a governmental strategy of “Facts be damned, let falsehoods do the job.” Last week’s debate around the Ryan/Nunes memo was just another instance of this political manipulation.
Psychologist have long asked why it is that rumors and innuendo, selective presentation of facts and cherry picking are so phenomenally successful in lodging in people’s brains and influencing their beliefs. There are many reasons. One key reason, though, is that we don’t interpret pieces of information independently. Instead, we form an impression based on the first info, use that to guide how we think about the second piece of info, which often strengthens our initial view. We then use that as a guide in thinking about the next piece of info which again strengthens our views and around and around we go.
As a result our ideas are sticky. And in particular this pattern means that you will easily accept any news, no matter how thin, if it fits with your view. But you get our your hammer and your magnifying glass and are ready to beat up any piece of info that challenges your view.
The link below is one of the best comprehensive articles on the issue (full text can be downloaded as PDF) spelling out how we are influenced and also suggesting mechanisms how to disrupt this influence.
The authors, highly respected in the field of cognitive psychology, suggest the following remedy:
Technocognition: the idea that we should use what we know about psychology to design technology in a way that minimizes the impact of misinformation. By improving how people communicate, they hope, we can improve the quality of the information shared.
Here is a summary of the approach from a Guardian article linked to below.
“The authors propose a number of ideas to help bring an end the post-truth era. One key idea involves the establishment of an international non-governmental organization that would create a rating system for disinformation. There are already some similar examples in existence – Climate Feedback consults climate scientists to rate the accuracy of media articles on climate change, and Snopes is a widely-respected fact checker. The challenge would of course be to convince conservatives to accept a neutral arbiter of facts, and continue accepting it when information they want to believe is ruled inaccurate.
These independent rulings could then be conveyed via technology. For example, Facebook could flag an article that’s based on false information as an unreliable source, and Google could give more weight in returning factually accurate news and information at the top of its search results lists.
The study authors also suggest that inoculation theory techniques could help dislodge misinformation after it first takes hold. This involves explaining the logical fallacy underpinning a myth. People don’t like being tricked, and research has shown that when they learn that an ideologically-friendly article has misinformed them by using fake experts, for example, they’re more likely to reject the misinformation. The authors also encourage teaching people – particularly students – how to identify misinformation techniques and the other strategies used to create the partisan echo chamber. Younger Americans are already less susceptible to the conservative media bubble. The median age of primetime Fox News viewers is 68, and Alabamans under the age of 45 voted for Roy Moore’s opponent Doug Jones by a 23-point margin. Teaching them how to identify misinformation techniques will help inoculate younger Americans against the corrosive effects of the partisan media bubble.”
Alas, this approach will NOT work if other things do not change. For one, the current tribalism has its own exclusionary panorama of news sources. If I only watch station X and that news outlet refuses to participate in some weighted information stream, nothing will change. More importantly, though, even if we were able to get the facts across, and have them accepted by a wider public regardless of political leanings, they might not change policy and decision making of governmental agencies if going against the interest of the economic elites. People show their true colors, then, when it comes to profit.
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