The Misinformation About Misinformation

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The misinformation about the 2016 and 2020 elections and the misinformation about COVID’s origins and treatments are responsible for our disarray. That, at least, is what many of us believe, even though what is “disarrayed” differs quite a bit between MSNBC and FOX. Is misinformation so powerful that it overcomes the truth? Or is there something about human behavior that makes misinformation seem more powerful than truth? A new study suggests the fault lies more within us than “in our stars.”

No matter which side of the political aisle, there is a fear that misinformation is more powerful than truth – it spreads quickly and has brought much damage to our society. Just below is data from a survey of ten thousand Americans on their views of online content. Ninety percent say misinformation is easily spread, especially extremist views, and 72% believe it has interfered with our elections. As the researchers write,

“Nearly half of Americans (47%) reported that major internet companies create more problems than they solve, and an additional 47% believed these companies contribute to misinforming the public about the news. Another 52% believed that major internet companies magnify unpopular views, and 60% said these companies do more to divide society than unite it.”

These fears fuel the push for more regulation from both sides of the aisle. Additionally, in some paradoxical manner, misinformation stories do more to breed distrust than enhance trust. The current research asked why people are so alarmed, basing their hypothesis  on a theory that our “cognitive preferences make some ideas and beliefs more likely to be successful than others, as they are more appealing, attention-grabbing, and memorable.” The research involved two surveys, the first considering some psychological factors that might be associated with the perceived danger of misinformation; the second whether those factors contributed to the success of those fear-driven concerns.

The researchers considered five psychological factors that would explain our perception of danger from misinformation. Perceived dangers of misinformation could be:

  • Positively associated with negative attitudes toward new technologies.
  • Positively associated with the belief that societal problems have simple solutions and clear causes.
  • Positively associated with the belief that we live in a dangerous world.
  • Negatively associated with confidence that people in general, friends and family, and themselves, are able to identify misinformation.
  • Positively associated with the “third-person effect, that is, the tendency to be more confident that oneself, compared with others, is able to identify misinformation.”

The survey involved roughly 600 online participants, half from the United Kingdom and half from the U.S. Age averaged between 34 and 37, evenly split between genders. All participants received a small fee for completing the survey. 

There were differences between the two populations, but the most substantial factor associated with a fear of misinformation was the third-person effect – while we were confident in our abilities to identify misinformation, we had real doubts about others in the population being as savvy. [1]

And the greater our perceived ability to detect misinformation compared to others, the greater our fear of misinformation’s danger.

“the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." – Franklin Roosevelt, 1st Inaugural

In the second study, the same individuals were shown a series of alarming headlines about misinformation and asked whether they would “like” or share these on social media. [2] As you might suspect, those who perceived the most significant danger from misinformation were the Paul Reveres, rushing to warn the gullible amongst us.

The effect of a greater fear of misinformation may lead us to make regulatory decisions that are more Draconian than the effect they wish to counter. And that holds equally true on both sides of the political aisle as they choose to regulate the speech they do not like.

We are not the detectors of truth that we believe, and others are certainly not necessarily more gullible. It would be good for us all to investigate the real power of misinformation rather than simply continue to be misinformed about misinformation.


[1] Reminiscent of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where we overestimate our ability or knowledge.

[2] Here are a few examples.


Source: People believe misinformation is a threat because they assume others are Gullible New Media and Society DOI: 10.1177/14614448231153379