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Hidden Motives & Factors Behind The Tidal Wave of Lies & Misinformation on Social Media

Posted by Jerry De Luca on Wednesday, May 19, 2021


Not many people have a firm, hard core commitment to truth these days. Most people fall for the Confirmation Bias fallacy – if the information supports their point of view – it’s true. If it doesn’t, it’s not true. This makes them easily susceptible to all manner of outright lies and deviously crafted half-truths. Social media makes it easy to spread the misinformation to like-minded friends, making the lies spread exponentially. A recent piece in the New York Times exposed both left-leaning and right-leaning culprits as guilty on all charges. The following is an excerpt, followed by just two possible remedies.

“(People) become more prone to misinformation when three things happen. First, and perhaps most important, is when conditions in society make people feel a greater need for what social scientists call ingrouping — a belief that their social identity is a source of strength and superiority, and that other groups can be blamed for their problems.

“As much as we like to think of ourselves as rational beings who put truth-seeking above all else, we are social animals wired for survival. In times of perceived conflict or social change, we seek security in groups. And that makes us eager to consume information, true or not, that lets us see the world as a conflict putting our righteous ingroup against a nefarious outgroup.

“Framing everything as a grand conflict against scheming enemies can feel enormously reassuring. And that’s why perhaps the greatest culprit of our era of misinformation may be, more than any one particular misinformer, the era-defining rise in social polarization.

“Growing hostility between the two halves of America feeds social distrust, which makes people more prone to rumor and falsehood. It also makes people cling much more tightly to their partisan identities. And once our brains switch into ‘identity-based conflict’ mode, we become desperately hungry for information that will affirm that sense of us versus them, and much less concerned about things like truth or accuracy.

“The second driver of the misinformation era is the emergence of high-profile political figures who encourage their followers to indulge their desire for identity-affirming misinformation. After all, an atmosphere of all-out political conflict often benefits those leaders, at least in the short term, by rallying people behind them.

Then there is the third factor — a shift to social media, which is a powerful outlet for composers of disinformation, a pervasive vector for misinformation itself and a multiplier of the other risk factors.

William J. Brady, a Yale University social psychologist:

“’Media has changed, the environment has changed, and that has a potentially big impact on our natural behaviour. When you post things, you’re highly aware of the feedback that you get, the social feedback in terms of likes and shares.’ So when misinformation appeals to social impulses more than the truth does, it gets more attention online, which means people feel rewarded and encouraged for spreading it. ‘Depending on the platform, especially, humans are very sensitive to social reward.’ Research demonstrates that people who get positive feedback for posting inflammatory or false statements become much more likely to do so again in the future.

“In 2016, the media scholars Jieun Shin and Kjerstin Thorson analyzed a data set of 300 million tweets from the 2012 election. Twitter users, they found, ‘selectively share fact-checking messages that cheerlead their own candidate and denigrate the opposing party’s candidate.’ And when users encountered a fact-check that revealed their candidate had gotten something wrong, their response wasn’t to get mad at the politician for lying. It was to attack the fact checkers. ‘We have found that Twitter users tend to retweet to show approval, argue, gain attention and entertain,’ researcher Jon-Patrick Allem wrote last year, summarizing a study he had co-authored. ‘Truthfulness of a post or accuracy of a claim was not an identified motivation for retweeting.’

“In a highly polarized society like today’s United States — or, for that matter, India or parts of Europe — those incentives pull heavily toward ingroup solidarity and outgroup derogation. They do not much favor consensus reality or abstract ideals of accuracy.

“As people become more prone to misinformation, opportunists and charlatans are also getting better at exploiting this. That can mean tear-it-all-down populists who rise on promises to smash the establishment and control minorities. It can also mean government agencies or freelance hacker groups stirring up social divisions abroad for their benefit. But the roots of the crisis go deeper.

“’The problem is that when we encounter opposing views in the age and context of social media, it’s not like reading them in a newspaper while sitting alone,’ the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote in a much-circulated MIT Technology Review article. ‘It’s like hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football stadium. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one.’”


‘Belonging Is Stronger Than Facts’: The Age of Misinformation https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/07/world/asia/misinformation-disinformation-fake-news.html

The Best Long-Term Solution

“Those who understand the need to stop America’s slide into ever-deepening irrationality must push our society to raise up new generations of thinking citizens who are capable of identifying and shrugging off unproven claims. The American mind can be repaired in the long term by teaching the skills and principles of critical thinking to every child. I am aware of the grandiose and cliché-like feel that comes with citing education as the only salvation from a big problem. But in this case, it really is the way. 

“Making critical thinking a national educational norm is the cognitive vaccine America needs to have a fighting chance of maintaining sufficient sanity. Good thinking prevents and alleviates bad thinking. Young students can be taught reason and skepticism as basic life skills. This would not be the kind of education that involves learning a bunch of facts for later regurgitation. Critical thinking is more like learning a trade. As one might train to weld or build furniture, one can learn how to think well out in the world.

“Critical thinking courses for all elementary, middle school, and high school students might include age-appropriate lessons on how to ask the right questions when confronted with an unusual or important claim; a review of common logical fallacies (with an emphasis on relevance to everyday experiences); how to select reliable information sources; a basic survey of the surprising but normal workings of a human brain (how the brain processes visual input, seeks patterns, why memory is unreliable, subconscious influence on conscious thinking, etc.); review how the ‘critical thinking’ concept can be abused and misrepresented (Many QAnon believers, for example, urge people to ‘think critically’ and often say ‘do your own research’. But this means little when poor information sources, flawed logic, and bogus evidence are attached to such advice.); historical review of past mass delusions, frauds, and costly mistakes rooted in poor thinking; and discussions about the many positive benefits of good thinking (increased odds for a safer, more efficient, and productive life).

“Given its importance to individual and national health, why not teach critical thinking every day in every school? Why not give it the same attention and emphasis as reading, mathematics, the Pledge of Allegiance, or anything else? Doing this would not preclude addressing the social and health needs of struggling Americans. It would not stand in the way of the need for intelligent social media regulation, vigilance against domestic terrorism, or general science and history education.”


How to Repair the American Mind: Solving America’s Cognitive Crisis https://skepticalinquirer.org/2021/04/how-to-repair-the-american-mind-solving-americas-cognitive-crisis/


“When we’re in an argument with someone, we should be thinking about how they can change their mind and look good – maintain or even enhance their face – at the same time. Often this is very hard to do in the moment of the dispute itself, when opinion and face are bound even more tightly together than they are before or after. However, by showing that we have listened to and respected our interlocutor’s point of view, we make it more likely that they will come around at some later point. If and when they do, we should avoid scolding them for not agreeing with us all along. It’s amazing quite how often people in polarised debates do this; it hardly makes it more tempting to switch sides. Instead, we should remember that they have achieved something we have not: a change of mind.” (Adapted from Conflicted: Why Arguments Are Tearing Us Apart and How They Can Bring Us Together by Ian Leslie)


How to have better arguments online https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/feb/16/how-to-have-better-arguments-social-media-politics-conflict 

Going Deeper

The problem of living inside echo chambers          https://theconversation.com/the-problem-of-living-inside-echo-chambers-110486

This Is How Your Fear and Outrage Are Being Sold for Profit  https://medium.com/@tobiasrose/the-enemy-in-our-feeds-e86511488de

Biases in algorithms hurt those looking for information on health https://theconversation.com/biases-in-algorithms-hurt-those-looking-for-information-on-health-140616

United States of Conspiracy: An Interview with Anna Merlan https://longreads.com/2019/04/17/interview-with-anna-merlan/ 

10 ways to spot online misinformation                     https://theconversation.com/10-ways-to-spot-online-misinformation-132246

"We're so freaking polarized": See how Americans with opposing views interpret the same situation                                     https://www.cbsnews.com/news/republicans-democrats-polarized-american-politics/

Evaluating information: what you should know https://media.chop.edu/data/files/pdfs/vaccine-education-center-evaluating-info-qa.pdf 

How Honest Are People on Social Media?  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/naked-truth/201807/how-honest-are-people-social-media

Seven ways to protect yourself against misinformation  https://research.asu.edu/seven-ways-to-protect-yourself-against-misinformation

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Photo: https://givingcompass.org/article/how-to-increase-immunity-to-truth-decay/  

Jerry De Luca is a Christian freelance writer who loves perusing dozens of interesting and informative publications. When he finds any useful info he summarizes it, taking the main points, and creates a (hopefully) helpful blog post.


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