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Thursday, December 5, 2019

How Misinformation Spreads--and Why We Trust It

Cailin O'Connor and James Owen Weatherall
Scientific American
Originally posted September 2019

Here is an excerpt:

Many communication theorists and social scientists have tried to understand how false beliefs persist by modeling the spread of ideas as a contagion. Employing mathematical models involves simulating a simplified representation of human social interactions using a computer algorithm and then studying these simulations to learn something about the real world. In a contagion model, ideas are like viruses that go from mind to mind.

You start with a network, which consists of nodes, representing individuals, and edges, which represent social connections.  You seed an idea in one “mind” and see how it spreads under various assumptions about when transmission will occur.

Contagion models are extremely simple but have been used to explain surprising patterns of behavior, such as the epidemic of suicide that reportedly swept through Europe after publication of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774 or when dozens of U.S. textile workers in 1962 reported suffering from nausea and numbness after being bitten by an imaginary insect. They can also explain how some false beliefs propagate on the Internet.

Before the last U.S. presidential election, an image of a young Donald Trump appeared on Facebook. It included a quote, attributed to a 1998 interview in People magazine, saying that if Trump ever ran for president, it would be as a Republican because the party is made up of “the dumbest group of voters.” Although it is unclear who “patient zero” was, we know that this meme passed rapidly from profile to profile.

The meme's veracity was quickly evaluated and debunked. The fact-checking Web site Snopes reported that the quote was fabricated as early as October 2015. But as with the tomato hornworm, these efforts to disseminate truth did not change how the rumors spread. One copy of the meme alone was shared more than half a million times. As new individuals shared it over the next several years, their false beliefs infected friends who observed the meme, and they, in turn, passed the false belief on to new areas of the network.

This is why many widely shared memes seem to be immune to fact-checking and debunking. Each person who shared the Trump meme simply trusted the friend who had shared it rather than checking for themselves.

Putting the facts out there does not help if no one bothers to look them up. It might seem like the problem here is laziness or gullibility—and thus that the solution is merely more education or better critical thinking skills. But that is not entirely right.

Sometimes false beliefs persist and spread even in communities where everyone works very hard to learn the truth by gathering and sharing evidence. In these cases, the problem is not unthinking trust. It goes far deeper than that.

The info is here.