In this article, I collect and organize some of my current thoughts on how to deal with mis/disinfo.
Within the last week, I finished reading Greifeneder, et al (2021). This book contains a lot of information about the psychology involved in the production of, sharing of, and handling of disinformation and misinformation. It gave me some new perspectives on how to deal with dis/misinfo.
Another thing that prompted me to write this was the recent attention being given to a TikTok creator who argues that ancient Rome never existed. A wide range of people have responded to this, but almost all of the responses have been abusive and dismissive. Which raises the question, is abuse the best way to respond to people with ideas that we disagree with? I say no. People who want to contribute to higher understanding/knowledge will benefit from not engaging in such behavior. Hurling insults is not equivalent to, nor does it serve as a substitution for an educated refutation. I think such behavior is indicative of how poorly equipped these people are for dealing with these situations.
If you do choose to engage with information you think is false, address the exact statements that you think are false and present evidence for why you think those statements are false. Anything else is irrelevant for scholarly discussion. This instruction is more-so for scholars who choose to engage in online discussions, but can be useful for non-scholars too. It’s important for scholars to behave properly as their actions can influence the public’s opinion about the institutions from which those scholars have obtained their degrees or in which they’re employed. There’s no excuse for abuse.
Production & Sharing
From what I’ve seen, disinformation is typically defined as false information created with the intention to deceive. This stands at odds with misinformation in that the misinformation is false information created without the intention to deceive. Both of these have false information at their center.
A number of inventions have increased the ease with which false info can be produced and shared. The internet has provided a relatively cheap soapbox, megaphone, and audience for anyone to say whatever they want for whatever reasons they may have. Millions of people have seized upon this opportunity. Additionally, with the dawn of Artificial Intelligence, bots can now produce false info with little to no human supervision.
The motives for producing disinfo are numerous. Some people do it for financial gain. Others do it for entertainment. Some do it as revenge or just because they don’t like someone. Misinfo is typically created by accident.
A study published in 2018 argued that the false information they analyzed “diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information.”[2, p.1] They report that false news reached 1500 people 6 times faster than true news.[2, p.3]
Dis/misinfo exists. It can and sometimes does cause serious problems (major financial loss, conflict within communities, and sometimes death). What’s the best way to handle it?
“In our view, a large part of the solution lies in empowering individuals with evidence-based tools from psychology and behavioral science. We have argued that it is especially important to focus on preventing disinformation from going viral in the first place.”
van der Linden & Roozenbeek (2021)[1, p.163]
One of their solutions is educating people on how information is created, received, and transmitted. I agree that this can help prevent dis/misinfo from going viral. This solution is similar to the one proposed earlier in the book.
“So, what can be done? Readers must be alert. Whether scientific or lay persons, anyone who relies on published articles or news regarding studies in the medical and biomedical arenas must scrutinize their content.”
Bar-Ilan & Halevi (2021)[1, p.66]
This goes for literature outside of the medical and biomedical arenas too. This solution is reminiscent of the age old saying “caveat lector” (meaning “reader beware”). One of the best ways to prevent buying into false information is to practice skepticism at the time in which the information is first presented to you (an argument made by Schwarz & Jalbert).[1, p.84] These authors provided a 5 point “Truth criteria” to help sift the false from the true.[1, p.74]
1: Compatibility – How does this fit in with other things I believe?
2: Coherence – Does the information contain any logical contradictions?
3: Credibility – How credible is the source?
4: Consensus – What do other people think about it?
5: Evidence – What evidence exists to support it?
These are good questions to be asking when determining the truth value of new info.
There are some psychological things to beware of too that can influence whether we buy into false info. Repetition makes things more likely to be believed. Sayings that rhyme apparently have a profound impact compared to their equivalent non-rhyming counterparts. Having names that are easier for us to pronounce can influence our perception of how credible the presenter is.[1, p.80] And our view of how credible a presenter is can influence how likely we are to accept what they are saying is true.[1, p.76] Claims that are easier to process can be more persuasive than claims which are more difficult to process.[1, p.77] If no immediate red flags are raised, we’re likely to accept the information as true.[1, pp.73-74]
“Hence, the deck is usually stacked in favor of accepting information rather than rejecting it, provided there are no salient markers that call the speaker’s cooperativeness into question.”
Schwarz & Jalbert (2021)[1, pp.73-74]
These are just a few of the psychological influences that we deal with. The above listings represent a tiny portion of everything one needs to be aware of. A final example for now can be seen in people who believe a claim is true because of a non-probative photo shown in conjecture with it.[1, p.90] Non-probative means that something that doesn’t provide evidence. So a claim saying “hamburgers cause heart disease” accompanied by a picture of a hamburger can be more persuasive than the same claim without the picture. A photo of a burger does nothing to prove the truth of the claim, making it a non-probative photo.
Correcting mis/disinfo can backfire.
“To avoid such backfire effects, it will usually be safer to refrain from any reiteration of false information and to focus solely on the facts.”
Schwarz & Jalbert (2021)[1, pp.83-84]
This has made me wonder about my approach to examining Fomenko’s New Chronology. Is it doing more harm than good, addressing his claims one by one? Given that I’ve received minimal attention, I don’t think my exam is having much impact. But perhaps it would be better to conduct the exam in the fashion I have been and then write a paper with only the facts included, no repetition of Fomenko’s false claims.
1 – Even if you disagree with someone, do not bully them or be abusive. It is not constructive for building a better society and it is not a refutation of whatever it is you disagree with.
2 – Dis/misinfo is problematic. A lot of literature exists on the topic already but more will help improve approaches and understandings.
 – Greifeneder, Rainer, et al. The Psychology of Fake News: Accepting, Sharing, and Correcting Misinformation. 1st ed., Routledge, 2021. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/oa-edit/10.4324/9780429295379/psychology-fake-news-rainer-greifeneder-mariela-jaff%C3%A9-eryn-newman-norbert-schwarz. Accessed 22 Nov. 2021.
 – Vosoughi, S., Roy, D., & Aral, S. (2018). The spread of true and false news online. Science, 359(6380), 1146–1151. doi:10.1126/science.aap9559. Accessed 22 Nov. 2021.
 – Effectiviology. “Grice’s Maxims of Conversation: The Principles of Effective Communication”. https://effectiviology.com/principles-of-effective-communication/. Accessed 22 Nov. 2021.
I have never posted on a Facebook, Twitter type forum but I have put out entire books arguing things of the ‘Rome never existed’ type. I have to report that it makes no difference — people just treat them as ‘fake news’ and ‘disinformation’ just the same. Nobody ever assumes I just disagree with them, I ‘must’ have some deeper, darker purpose. Spending a couple of years marshalling my arguments is taken to be evidence that I’m a specially hard nut job rather than a reason to address the arguments. It is weird but it must be assumed to be part of the human condition.