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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Let reliable insights guide the battle against misinformation

Robert Califf, commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said in an interview that misinformation is killing Americans—contributing to the fact that US life expectancy is 3 to 5 years worse than that of people in comparably wealthy countries. He called for better regulation to crack down on misinformation. But would such rules help? I studied medical misinformation as part of a journalism fellowship, and as I’ve written before, there is a real danger when misinformed people skip life-saving vaccines or buy into risky, untested treatments. Yet policing misinformation is tricky.

Fact checkers may even worsen the problem by confusing value judgements with facts, and by portraying science as a set of immutable facts, rather than a system of inquiry that constructs provisional theories based on imperfect data.

The advent of artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT will only magnify the confusion; the latest version has raised the worry that it could be used as a turbocharged misinformation machine that floods us with AI-generated fake news and images. As Niall Ferguson recently wrote, some AI enthusiasts are plotting to “flood the zone with truth"—but this is problematic when people have an inflated idea of their own abilities to identify truth.

A lot of people are upset, even outraged about rampant misinformation online, but not especially worried about falling for it. The real problem is all those more gullible people. But according to a new study from Oxford University, the very people who are most worried about misinformation are also the most likely to consider themselves impervious to it. They’re probably overconfident: 80% of those surveyed think they’re above average at spotting misinformation. Sacha Altay, the cognitive scientist who led the study, said there’s a strong correlation between concern about misinformation and feelings of superiority in spotting it. This makes sense. If you’re not puffed up with superiority, you’ll assume you’re not special and other people are seeing through the same misleading claims you are.

Altay, who tested participants from both the US and UK, argued that we’re seeing a moral panic about misinformation that’s been exaggerated by people’s false sense of superior discernment. Perhaps the public is not as gullible as has been assumed.

Cambridge University psychologist Sander van der Linden, author of the new book Foolproof: Why Misinformation Infects Our Minds and How to Build Immunity, has done research that shows small nudges can motivate people to be smarter consumers of information. One of his most recent studies tested over 3,000 US participants on their ability to spot fake news stories with a political bent and found their performance improved remarkably if they were given a cash reward for each right answer. For the most part, people tend to discount facts that cast political rivals in a positive light. But just the promise of $1 per right answer improved volunteers’ accuracy by 30%.

Spreading misinformation might be more about demonstrating one’s own politics and less about gullibility. Another study found that what really drove engagement on social media was hurling dirt and insults at the other side (‘outgroup derogation’). This behaviour is rewarded by the group, while those who fail to conform are sidelined or ignored. Seen through this lens, a group’s reluctance to, say, get a vaccine may stem more from political polarization than medical misinformation.

How can we use insights like these to make the world less susceptible to deception and error? To Altay, stamping out misinformation is the wrong goal. Rebuilding public trust is much more important. “It’s very dangerous for a democracy to promote ideas that people are stupid and there is misinformation everywhere," he said. It’s far better to shore up trust in institutions and in reliable sources of information. His view reminded me of something I learned from former Soviet spy Larry Martin, who defected to the US in the 1980s. He’d created disinformation—even more deliberately deceptive than misinformation—as deputy commander of the Czech intelligence service. When I interviewed him in 2017, he told me that when the Soviets wanted to cause damage, they would spread such propaganda to undermine trust in US institutions—the government, universities, the press. It’s bad for democracy if people lose faith in each other.

And assuming other people are stupid is also bad for our health. People have a range of cognitive strengths and weaknesses in every country. Blaming online misinformation for shrinking American life spans is a cop-out—especially since the US has an overburdened healthcare system that has made big mistakes, from overprescribing opioids to failing to come up with an effective covid strategy. 

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering science. ©bloomberg

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Updated: 16 Apr 2023, 10:46 PM IST
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