Introducing Misinformation Desk | Psychology Today


Did a panda cub, like this one, fly international business class?

Source: skeeze/Pixabay

The “Information Desk” is often an unassuming counter where a person can find the information they need. Information desks exist most commonly in public spaces like university campuses, hospitals, and airports. The person receiving the information generally doesn’t question the information. That person could trust that the information was from a reliable source and that it would be helpful. That’s still mostly the case with information desks, but the sense of what information is reliable has changed considerably over recent years.

Here are five pieces of tantalizing information that a surprising number of people believe (or believed):

  • President Donald Trump called Republicans the “dumbest group of voters” in a 1998 interview for People magazine.
  • A panda cub named Squee Squee flew from China to the U.S. in a business class seat.
  • Facebook terminated an artificial intelligence experiment because the chatbots “began conversing in their own private language.”
  • The American basketball superstar Michael Jordan died in his sleep in 2015.
  • The legendary performer Elvis Presley is still alive and makes low-key appearances in 7-Elevens from time to time.

Today, consumers of information must continually ask themselves if the information can be trusted or if it is some type of misinformation. These basic questions help with that:

  • How reliable is the source (peer-reviewed/meeting a journalistic standard to purposely biased misinformation)?
  • How misleading is the information (100% false, intentionally misleading, sloppy reporting, good reporting, evidence-based primary source)?
  • How intentional is the misinformation (on purpose to accidental)?

Unfortunately, even that sort of evaluative filter isn’t enough today. More than ever, people believe mutually exclusive things. (For example, the infamous Plandemic films claimed both that COVID-19 escaped from an infectious disease lab in Wuhan and had already infected all of us through vaccines.) Misinformation has become so prevalent that we now can break down the misinformation into varying degrees of misleading. In HuffPost, Dr. John Johnson shows one way to do that, designating five types of misinformation:

  1. 100% false,
  2. slanted and biased,
  3. pure propaganda,
  4. misusing the data, and
  5. imprecise and sloppy.

Of course, even understanding the type of misinformation isn’t enough today either. Today, we must also understand why this misinformation is so believable and figure out how to correct that. To do that, we have to understand how science works: why usually self-correcting scientific procedures can promote confusion, how a deeper understanding of science can help us navigate the news, and how the revolutionary open-science movement is, well, revolutionary.   

That is our mission here and the why behind the Misinformation Desk, an unassuming counter of the internet that attempts to explain why people believe inaccurate information (and suggests ways, grounded in psychological science and principles of ethical journalism, to deal with that type of inaccurate information).

Today, so many people believe conflicting worldviews that it is difficult to reconcile the various groups of people. The public intellectual Kurt Andersen suggests that the issue is a distinctly American problem: “being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.” Of course, it’s not too difficult to widen this perspective and see that this is the world we live in today. That’s one explanation.

But there’s an even better explanation provided by psychology researchers: the persuasive power of stories. Humans naturally find stories more compelling than data and facts. Stories are a staple of advertising (the marketing of cosmetics, weight-loss programs, cars, and even Kylie Jenner’s very-online “lifestyle” depends upon it) and of the news (real as well as fake). This is why, for instance, medical quackery and science-backed medical cures both use testimonials to convince us to try them. Stories are convincing and memorable.

Now back to those five bits of tantalizing information:

  • It makes sense to some people that he might have, but Donald Trump did not call Republicans the “dumbest group of voters” in a 1998 interview for People magazine.
  • Unfortunately, for people who love cute animal stories, the panda cub named Squee Squee did not fly from China to the U.S. in a business class seat. This was believable, in part, because the story was often accompanied by a photo (which actually shows a stuffed toy panda fake-eating bamboo leaves while sitting in a business class seat).
  • Facebook has started and ended artificial intelligence experiments, but not because artificial intelligence generated a private language that the creators of the artificial intelligence did not understand. Of course, it would be satisfyingly ironic, for many, if this were the case, which makes it a good misinformation story.
  • In February of 2015, the viral story about the death of Michael Jordan was not true. Part of the reason this story was believable was that it was accompanied by a video clip from ESPN—a fairly reliable source for sports-related information—but the death being discussed in the clip is actually the untimely death of ESPN anchor Stuart Scott, not Michael Jordan. Michael is still alive as of September 10th, 2020.
  • Elvis Presley died young in 1977 while sitting on the toilet in his Graceland mansion. So, he wouldn’t have shown up in a 7-Eleven, or anywhere else, since then. Of course, now that we understand the reach and power of stories, it’s easy to understand Elvis sightings.

The reason that so many people believe these stories is simple: People love stories. We can’t stop telling them, listening to them, reading them, re-telling them, explaining them, etc. I mean, look at us now. We’re not going to tell you what to believe, but we are going to give you ways to think about what to believe. Along the way, we’ll share compelling, strange, and occasionally unbelievable stories. Of course, some of them will be true.

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