Is the Covid-19 virus an act of bioterrorism? Was Sushant Singh Rajput murdered by the entrenched “insider” Bollywood mafia? Is there a paedophilic deep state about to take over the world (QAnon)? Was the moon landing faked? Do vaccines cause autism? Is global warming a hoax? Was there a second shooter on that grassy knoll on 22nd November, 1963? Was 9/11 engineered by the US government?
No matter how many times scientific evidence refutes these new and old claims/conspiracy theories and fake news, legions of people continue to believe in them. Before we examine the primary reasons for continued belief in fake news, conspiracy theories, disinformation, misinformation etc. let us first pin down the widely accepted definitions of these various terms in the ‘information pollution ecosystem’. According to a report by the State Department of the United States, ‘The Weapons of Mass Distraction’,
“misinformation is generally understood as the inadvertent sharing of false information that is not intended to cause harm, just as disinformation or fake news is widely defined as the purposeful dissemination of false information. Conspiracy theories are narratives about events or situations, that allege there are secret plans to carry out sinister deeds.”
What makes this false information ecosystem so pervasive and appealing in an age of instant access to legitimate news sources?
Despite claims that all of these forms of “information pollution” have multiplied manifolds due to the technology now available, it is important to remember that all of these “pollutants” have thrived throughout known human history. So, for all the technological changes which have inarguably turbocharged the breadth and depth of the dissemination, possibly the single most important element for fake news and conspiracies to thrive has remained unchanged i.e. the inherent human biases and behaviours which are exploited to feed the engine of this false information ecosystem.
There is a vast amount of empirical evidence emanating from psychology, sociology and communication to show that human beings are not always rational in their beliefs and behaviours, including the kind and sources of information they choose to consume and believe. Research shows that many of us buy into alternative explanations because the world is a big, scary, chaotic place and we crave a sense of belonging and identity and prefer immediate, comforting answers. There are several explanations for why a lot of us are attracted to fake news and conspiracy theories.
Neuroscience has shown that our limbic system is kickstarted into looking for patterns and explanations for threat recognition, evaluation and solutions when confronted with difficult, uncontrollable situations like a disease outbreak or earthquake. This is called illusory pattern perception – our propensity to detect patterns where none exist – and this is pretty much hardwired into our brains. Researchers posit that this tendency evolved as a defence mechanism for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to detect and avoid danger. This tendency to see patterns or conspiracies when dealing with an unfathomable phenomenon spawns any number of theories such as what we are witnessing with the Covid-19 crisis – from 5G towers to bioterrorism to Bill Gates spreading the infection to market a world conquering vaccine.
Second, there is the principle of confirmation bias, which refers to our tendency to search for information that is congruent with our existing beliefs. Conceding that we are mistaken about something is a tough thing for most of us to do and it is especially so for beliefs and ideas that are fundamental to our worldview. Therefore, we cling even harder to ideas, evidence and information which confirm our worldview and ignore any contradictory information. Cue the now familiar concepts of “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles” of our algorithm led newsfeeds which keep us comfortably ensconced in our comfort zone of like-minded people, facts and opinions on social media – the subject of so much policy debates. And the more the same material is repeated the more we believe it to be true, also called the illusory truth effect. A related concept which lends credence to oft repeated information (true or false) by those in our circle or important others is that of social proof (if my social group believes it, it must be true).
Third, humans are cognitively lazy. Our brains work in a dual processing mode where for most of the time we are on autopilot (System 1), take in information on face value and make intuitive decisions which are good enough (satisficing) without critically appraising it for veracity. We conserve our cognitive energy for more “important tasks” which require us to take a more rational, well-thought, informed, and reflective approach (System 2). Research shows that over 90% of the time in the entire lives, our information processing and decision-making happens in the system 1 mode and this may result in choosing to believe the fake news report rather than digging deeper to verify it.
Fourth, let’s look at proportionality bias which is our tendency to believe that large events have large causes. The idea that just one guy with a gun (Lee Harvey Oswald) could murder one of the most powerful people in the world (President John F Kennedy) is unsatisfying, and we intuitively search for bigger forces at work. That is why multiple conspiracy theories of government, mafia and foreign involvement seem more reasonable despite the evidence otherwise.
Fifth, we have the exact opposite of cognitive laziness i.e. motivated reasoning or the tendency to apply higher scrutiny to ideas that are inconsistent with our beliefs. We use motivated reasoning to further our quest for social identity and belonging. Further, research shows that naïve realism plays an important role during the consumption and evaluation of information. Naïve realism results in our belief that only our perception of social reality is accurate and based in facts and that those who disagree are simply ignorant or unreasonable.
Interestingly, an important predictor of belief in conspiracy theories is past belief in another one. So once you believe a sinister cabal engineered one event, it becomes much more likely that you’ll look for shadowy cabals at every opportunity. And that is another problem: sometimes conspiracy theories turn out to be right. Watergate did happen, the CIA did conspire to topple governments, scientists did visit unimaginable horrors on human subjects during “medical experiments”. Proven conspiracies unveiled after much investigation open the door to conjecture about other events with alternate plausible explanations.
Another reason for believing in disinformation is our own sense of morality as a proxy for that of other people. So, people who think they themselves might create a deadly disease (for whatever reason) are likely to believe that scientists created AIDS or Covid-19 in a lab. Political extremism also leads people to question the narrative of the establishment. Being less educated or having less money is also associated with a tendency to believe fake news, although this could be partly because belonging to lower socio-economic categories is also associated with greater feelings of disenfranchisement, less control over one’s life and greater uncertainty, which in turn makes conspiracy theories more appealing. And last but not the least there is a certain sexiness to fake news – it is very “novel” and mostly negative – two features that attract human attention much more than cold, hard, verified facts.
The internet facilitates the spread of disinformation faster than ever before and this ecosystem of false information can have a powerful effect on our behaviour. Studies have shown that fake news and conspiracy theories can lead to lower participation in politics, lower vaccination rates, disregard of scientific or medical advice, reduction in environment friendly behaviours, even incite murders and killing sprees. So, it’s imperative to understand why people continue to believe disinformation despite factual, verifiable evidence to the contrary. What it is in our own minds that can make any person vulnerable to believing in this disinformation is also important to locate, is the place to begin.
Purnima Mehrotra is the Associate Director – Research and Capacity Building at the Centre for Social and Behavioural Change, Ashoka University. She has experience across industries – education, research, advertising and non-profit.
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