The way we exchange information has changed a lot in the last decade. As turnaround times for articles are shorter than ever, less fact-checking is done, and more and more content is being put online every single day. We consume an increasing amount of misinformation in our media diets. Since there is so much widely-available information on the internet it is important we take measures to ensure the information we receive is as accurate as possible.
It’s important to first understand the difference between misinformation, disinformation, and fake news.
Misinformation: false or misleading information shared without harmful intent.
Disinformation: false information which is intentionally misleading.
Disinformation is usually people spreading misinformation aware that it is inaccurate, or articles which contain deliberately misleading information. This tends to be more prevalent in political contexts.
These differences are important because most Americans are worse at identifying them than they think. According to an Ipsos poll, 75% of Americans believed the fake news headlines were “somewhat” or “very” accurate 75% of the time. Bias is also a big factor when it comes to fake news. Cognitive bias and other natural human biases: for example, headlines with emotional triggers can make people believe certain fake news headlines. These natural biases are exploited by bots on social media, with their algorithms recommending information that is more tailored toward your beliefs. For example, a Kamala Harris supporter could be recommended an article on how much money Kamala Harris donated last year. However, on platforms such as Twitter, people are the ones choosing to mistakenly spread fake news by retweeting incorrect information. In fact, an MIT Media Lab study found that false news is 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth. Often, people do not recognize they are being manipulated and fed false information, whether it be because of the format of the presentation or their own biases. Politics are a big sphere where people fall victim to confirmation bias, most people tend to either only read news from sources that align with their political beliefs, and dismiss other sources as discreditable. As for misinformation, the issue is a lot less malicious than disinformation or false news, as the spread of misinformation is largely accidental. Most people who take part in sharing misinformation are more so distracted or unaware of the incorrect information they’re sharing, as people are not very skilled at identifying disinformation. The COVID-19 pandemic specifically magnified the situation and allowed for widespread misinformation via social media. This showed how disastrous the effects of misinformation could be. Early on, many were led to believe that the vaccine was a complete cure, or that the preventative measures of COVID-19 weren’t actually doing much to help.
As for long-term effects, the spread of misinformation and false news “often parallels distrust in public institutions, leaders, and governments” according to EU Science Hub. Researchers at Stanford University found that the elderly, youth, active members of social media, and people with fewer years of formal education were much more susceptible to disinformation or fake news at the time, and much more likely to take part in spreading misinformation.
Social media manipulation in terms of misinformation is often discussed within the context of politics. Social media, such as Instagram, Tiktok, or even some inaccurate news sources, can skew people’s perceptions of the general public’s opinion or stance on certain issues. A study by MIT scholars researched how social media impacts voters’ perceptions of others’ plans to vote, and how these perceptions can even increase the chance of electoral deadlock or bias election outcomes in favor of a particular party.
Additionally, fake news often boasts sensational headlines in favor of certain political members, which not only takes advantage of people’s confirmation bias, but is eerily accepted as true by some people who identify with the opposing political party. As study shows, polarization isn’t a particular problem when it comes to believing the legitimacy of articles. Most, even those who aren’t particularly fond of certain political figures, will believe positive reporting. Even if it is false, or manufactured, it will still be accepted by a large number of people. This sort of misinformation can heavily impact public perception of political figures and, in turn, affect election results.
It can be hard to find trustworthy information. As methods of spreading information evolve, readers must evolve and learn to differentiate between misinformation and disinformation, as well as determine for themselves what sources they find to be reliable. It is also important to actively search for sources to combat one’s own biases, whether it be by reading news from multiple sources, or actively reading from sources affiliated with opposing viewpoints.