This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 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 It is stubbornly resilient, lasting even after it has been retracted or proven wrong.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.
There are many reasons for the Continued Influence Effect:
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.
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?
Misinformation is incredibly resistant. However, there are a few ways to increase the likelihood of an effective retraction:
So, for a piece of misinformation to be effectively withdrawn, you should:
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