Voltaire was right.
“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”.
And, while we’re here…
Let’s just say that some people believe weird stuff and leave it at that. It turns out that just one of the fascinating reasons that people accept odd ideas is that they keep getting repeated, even if only to debunk them. OK. Delete first sentence. We’re arriving at a place where we can’t just ‘leave it’.
So, where does all this misinformation come from, why do people believe it and act on it and how can right-thinking people counter it? I wonder… Here’s an obvious starting point: rumour and fiction. People love sensational stories – just look how much fun everybody is currently having with the hapless Duke of York, about whom all that can be said with certainty is that years ago he put his arm around a pretty girl and he’s not good at choosing his friends. The twitterati are awash with a mixture of harrumph, bile and glee. Meanwhile, the Prince has lost his job. The media love to zero in on tales that make the punters happy, disgusted or afraid: anything that provokes a strong emotional response. Why? Because it sells.
Neutral stories, which are probably more likely to be true, but much more tedious, therefore get short shrift. More bizarrely, people have been shown to believe things that they’ve read in novels that have clearly been totally made up. This is true even when they are obviously works of fiction, also, indeed, when they are told the fiction contains misinformation. Finally, they are infinitely persuadable, to the point of utter nonsensical gullibility, Which is how Hitler persuaded people it was not only OK but a genetic imperative to gas the Jews, the Roma and all kinds of others not meeting the standard of Aryan perfection. People believe the fairy tale even when the real facts are relatively well-known perhaps because people’s defences tend to be lower when they’re exposed to populism. The first Kazakhstani fake journalist Borat, aka Sasha Baron Cohen once went into a bar in Arizona and persuaded the entire bar to sing “Throw the Jew down the Well”.
SBC addressed the Anti-Defamation League recently as his most unpopular persona, himself. His remarks are both chilling and worth a few minutes. Most disturbingly, he suggested “what could Goebbels have done with Facebook?”
Social media is the bête noir of the truth and it’s a drip-feed. Its “usual” – or mainstream – sources do have a tendency to oversimplification and, once in a while, when it occurs to somebody, they attempt to provide balance. The need for balance is in and of itself fictitious and it’s interesting not least because the issues themselves aren’t always ‘balanced’. For example, over 95% of climate scientists agree that the Earth is warming due to greenhouse-gas emissions, but their anthropogenic cause is steadily gaining traction by sheer, mindless repetition. Tim Berners-Lee, the so-called Father of the Internet, recently had a few harsh words to say about tech giants; the permissibility of every Joe getting a shout and the sheer irresponsibility of the playground – or cage fight– that social media has become. People with no qualifications, experience or maturity can post whatever they like. Sieving the wheat from the chaff is something which people with an education are supposed to be quite good at, but it turns out not always to be the case. Here’s a frightening fact. Look up “weight loss diets”.A tiny percentage of the links offer properly sound dietary advice. The rest is a mish-mash of crackpot ideas, things that worked for somebody’s cousin’s mother and the digital equivalent of snake-oil salesmanship. Also, people tend to seek out information that confirms their existing points of view and this is an exercise that has become much easier now that the Internet provides such a huge range of viewpoints. No matter what you believe, even if you’re as crazy as a bedbug, there’s always somebody else out there who believes the same shit as you do.
Why do people believe misinformation? It’s pretty clear that lies and half-truths are floating about all over the place. But if we all know that politicians, the media and the internet sometimes – even more often than not – tell whopping great porkies – £359million springs to mind – then how come some people end up believing them? The problem is that the way people go about believing things (or not) is fundamentally weird. Few of us bother to actually check solid facts for ourselves; most of us use mental short-cuts, presumably to save ourselves the trouble of actually doing any hard mental processing. We often pond-skate over the argument by asking ourselves “Does it feel right?” In other words, does the new information square with what I already understand, or believe? Then, “Does it make sense?” Things that are easy to understand are easier to believe. Our minds tend to reject complicated stuff – it’s too demanding to process – defending itself by saying: “Oh, it’s probably a lie, but, who cares?”
At the heart of critical thinking is this question: “Is the source believable?” People who seem authoritative, like those in positions of power, are more likely to be believed. For example, doctors can create havoc by giving bad advice in public because people tend to believe them.
Also “Who else believes it?” People prefer to go along with the herd. Unfortunately, people also have an in inbuilt bias towards thinking that most other people agree with them, even if, in reality, they don’t. But this still doesn’t explain why people continue to believe all kinds of weird stuff, even after it’s been proven to them that it’s false. Like Russian intervention in Western elections. It turns out that even once misinformation has been completely retracted and those involved have admitted it was all a farrago of lies, the misinformation virus is difficult to kill. It simply migrates to a more willing host.
One compelling reason for this is based on how memory works: we tend to find it much easier to recall the gist of things rather than the exact details. Usually this is handy because it means we can learn specific things, such as cooking meat makes it easier to digest, and generalise it to the fact that cooking makes many foods more palatable. The downside is that it’s easy for people to remember the gist of some piece of misinformation like fairies live at the bottom of the garden, but forget that they heard it from a totally unreliable source (a wide-eyed three-year-old). So, it’s not a bad idea to have a few tools in the box to enable us to attack the spectre of misinformation when it sticks one of its many heads over the parapet.
Firstly, offer ‘truth plus’. Changing people’s minds isn’t just about telling them they are wrong; if only it were. To be convinced, people need to hear an alternative account that explains why something happened, not just that the information is wrong. Ideally, it should also explain the motivations for the lie. Embellishment of the truth adds validity.
Secondly, the KISS rule applies- ‘keep it simple, stupid…’ This alternative account shouldn’t be too complicated. The shorter it is, the sweeter it will work. Give people too much and they switch off.
Next, try to avoid repeating the myth. Remember that people find the gist of things easiest to recall. By repeating the myth, you’re shooting yourself in the foot by imprinting it on people’s minds.
Remember when you were little? Mama fed you saying ‘here comes the airplane…’ and you opened your mouth to get the rice pudding, or whatever. So tell people beforehand that there is misleading information coming. Afterwards keep banging it home, repeating the facts. Each repetition builds up the rebuttal’s strength in people’s minds. The power of repetition to influence people is clear – just look at how any dictatorship works, or mantras like ‘for the many, not the few’.
Most of the previous are basically defensive tools. It doesn’t hurt to go on the attack from time to time. Go after them. What is the source of the misinformation? And what do they know? Nothing! Encouraging people to be a little more sceptical can help. One of the challenges here is that people tend to believe those who say things that fit in with their worldview. Jeremy Corbyn is a past master at this. So that’s why it’s important to affirm the worldview of your audience, which tends to keep them onside, even if you’re telling them things they don’t want to hear. For example, Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the darkest days of the Second World War when the threat of Nazi Germany loomed largest. On his election in May 1940 he made a speech to the British House of Commons. He said: “I would say to the House …I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.”
Not a great manifesto pledge, much like ‘get Brexit done’ but, see what follows:
“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs – Victory in spite of all terror – Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”
For years afterward, his famous V sign reinforced the point. Telling people things they don’t want to hear is a balancing act. You have to go far enough to make the point, then overcome their natural resistance by identity affirmation. So, as Churchill did, you might indirectly get people to think about things that are important to them like their family, friends and ideals.
Finally, much as we’d all love to believe that the late lamented Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is real, there isn’t really a waterfall at the edge, and the four elephants that hold it up aren’t standing on a giant turtle, after all. What a shame. We’ll have to make to with reality instead.