What you can do to combat misinformation

June 1, 2020

By Jessica Henderson, Account Executive at Painted Dog Research, Perth, Western Australia.

Every day we are bombarded with information from television, the internet, social media, radio, and from people we talk with. We accept a lot of information from these sources as true unless we have a reason not to. However, occasionally (and perhaps less occasionally in election campaigns – shades of Donald Trump!), information we have accepted as being true turns out to be inaccurate. This misinformation may be retracted or publicly revealed as false.

But people cling onto misinformation. It is stubbornly resilient, lasting even after it has been retracted or proven wrong. This phenomenon is known as the Continued Influence Effect. Research has shown that despite clear retractions, people are reluctant to dismiss the original piece of misinformation from their minds.

Think of the claimed link between childhood vaccinations and autism. A medical article in 1998 claimed a common vaccination administered to young children was linked to the development of autism later in childhood. Despite this study being discredited and the findings retracted, people continue to believe a link exists.

Why do we cling to misinformation despite retractions?

There are many reasons for the Continued Influence Effect:

  1. Repetition. Repeat something often enough and it eventually becomes hard to forget.
  2. People may believe the original piece of information must have a grain of truth from somewhere. Once embedded in a person’s mind it is hard to erase.
  3. Alignment with a person’s current beliefs, known as Confirmation Bias. Accepting a claim that fits in with our belief system is easy to do. However, accepting a retraction of the claim may pose a challenge our beliefs and makes the change harder to accept.
  4. How widely held the misinformed belief is. If other people believe something, especially in our networks (among our friends, family, colleagues etc), then we are more likely to believe it too. Social media can also act as an echo chamber for our own beliefs based on the people we choose to associate with. We often think if other people believe a piece of information, there’s probably something to it. This is Cialdini’s Principle of Social Proof in action.
  5. The source of the misleading information also influences us. We often resort to mental shortcuts, known as heuristics, in processing information. As social beings, we find a useful shortcut when assessing the believability of a piece of information is assessing the credibility of the source rather than just the message. Surely if a trusted source like a friend or senior person in authority says something is true, it must be true!
  6. Finally, perhaps the most interesting theory behind why we hold on so tightly to misinformation is the Mental Models theory. This theory proposes that in our mind’s eye we create ‘mental models’ of events as we know them.

Mental models theory

If you are told that Jim was convicted of stealing from his company, your mental model would consist of Factor A (company property being stolen) due to Factor B (Jim stealing from the company). If it turns out that in fact Jim was falsely accused and is acquitted of this crime, it is likely you will still be at least slightly suspicious of Jim.

This is because there is now a gap in your mental model of the event. You still have factor A (company property was stolen), but you are missing Factor B (who stole the property). Even though you know that Jim has been acquitted, you are likely to prefer a complete model over one with a gap and so you may continue to be suspicious of Jim and his involvement in the crime.

People will often rely on misinformation even if they believe and can recall the retraction. If they are not provided with an alternative piece of information, they will turn to the inaccurate piece rather than having no explanation at all.

Can the damage be undone?

In a technology-driven world where information is rapidly distributed, incorrect stories are inevitable. Like the ‘birther’ lie about Barack Obama, which claimed he was not born in the U.S. We can retract this information (as Donald Trump did eventually) or prove it is unfounded (such as President Obama publicly presenting his U.S. birth certificate), but how likely are we to successfully counteract the damaging misinformation?

Effective retraction techniques

Misinformation is incredibly resistant. However, there are a few ways to increase the likelihood of an effective retraction:

  1. The simplest is repetition. Just as repetition increases the chances of misleading information being ingrained in a person’s mind, repetition of a retraction works in the same way and makes it more effective.
  2. Replace the information retracted with new information, as in the mental models of events discussed above. If you are told that Jim did not steal from his company but it was actually Sally, you are more likely to accept that Jim is innocent because you don’t have a gap in your mental model. To make the replacement information even more acceptable, it should also explain why the misinformation was believed to be true (eg Sally blamed Jim first). This counteracts our tendency to wonder why the original information was provided and to be sceptical of the replacement information.
  3. Source credibility and trustworthiness influences the effectiveness of a retraction. Retractions coming from people who look trustworthy are more effective than those from untrustworthy faces. In fact, retractions from untrustworthy faces have been found to be completely ineffective.Interestingly, face trustworthiness is highly correlated with attractiveness and perceived emotion. People who appear to be happy or attractive are considered more trustworthy than those who appear more aggressive or less attractive.

So, for a piece of misinformation to be effectively withdrawn, you should:

  1. Arrange for an attractive, happy-looking person to provide the retraction;
  2. Replace the retracted information with plausible alternative information if possible, as well as an explanation for the belief of the original misinformation;
  3. Repeat the retraction as often as possible in order to strengthen it and make it more familiar.

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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