Why Misinformation Spreads Like a Virus
And how we can counter it.
The last few years have ushered in the era of “alternative facts.” From space lasers, lizard people, Qanon, to the “stop the steal” movement, leaders everywhere have embraced and exploited, this new post-truth paradigm. While conspiracy theorists have always existed, this era has brought delusion into the mainstream. Why does misinformation spread so readily in the digital age, and is there anything we can do about it?
The post-truth era is perhaps no better embodied than in America’s “Stop the Steal” movement, which ultimately resulted in an insurrection attempt on Capitol Hill. The Stop the Steal riots were motivated by a conspiracy alleging that Joe Biden “stole” the 2020 election from Donald Trump.
This conspiracy began with allegations of rigged mail-in votes, but soon morphed into a vast number of claims. These include: North Korean ships importing fake ballots through Maine, sharpies on ballots, Dominion-manufactured election machines rigged by a late Hugo Chavez, servers in Europe doing something, and nefarious rigging by Governor Kemp in Georgia, the CIA, Attorney General Barr, and even Vice President Pence...just to name a few.
Indeed, “stolen election” conspiracy theorists piled on new allegations almost daily. Each allegation, if addressed individually, can be disputed successfully. The problem, or perhaps the advantage of this new kind of conspiracy, is that the sheer number of allegations made the “Stop the Steal” movement impossible to counter completely.
The Gish Gallop, The Bull**** Asymmetry Principle
There is an oral debate tactic known as the Gish Gallop, where a debater throws out as many claims as possible in the shortest period of time, with no regard to their accuracy or strength. The purpose of the Gish Gallop is to overwhelm the opponent with far too much information, such that they are unable to counter every “point” made.
To those who may not closely follow the topic debated, it may falsely appear that the person utilizing the Gallop won the debate, when in reality he merely overwhelmed the opponent with useless information. The Gish Gallop leverages Brandolini’s Law, otherwise known as the Bull**** Asymmetry Principle, which states that making a claim is easy and requires little effort, but disputing said claim with factual information is an order of magnitude more difficult.
If you overwhelm the public with claims, it becomes impossible for the media, fact-checkers, and third parties to effectively examine, research, and verify or debunk those claims. Hence, the asymmetry between truth and lies. This asymmetry is the same reason that the best online information sources are often hidden behind paywalls, while questionable content is free (irony taken). It takes time and money to do actual research, but anyone can publish lies.
The power of Brandolini’s Law has been amplified by social media, internet forums, and search engines. These ad-driven platforms need to keep users engaged to be profitable. Keeping them engaged, however, requires giving users what they want: A steady stream of information that confirms everything they want to believe.
From there, confirmation bias takes over. It is natural for humans to seek out information that conforms to what they already believe. In the social media realm, however, this enables like-minded people to hive themselves off into filter bubbles. These bubbles become echo chambers where their members reinforce each other in a shared delusion, aiding one another as they spiral down rabbit holes of their own construction.
At the other end of these rabbit holes, the Earth is flat, CNN anchors eat babies, and the inauguration of President Biden was filmed on a sound stage. As crazy as it may sound, those who come out the other end of the rabbit hole are absolutely certain of one thing: they know the “truth” and everyone else is a “sheeple.”
Civilization at Stake
Civilization cannot carry on in a post-truth world. To be clear, total conformity of opinion is objectively bad and we should warmly welcome different opinions on matters of the day. That said, we must all be willing to debate on a rational level. Conspiracy theorists are simply unwilling to do this. This means society must find a way to counter misinformation, and fast.
We may be tempted to censor false information online, but in a Western country like the United States, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of restricting access to information. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the “censoring” of information could draw more attention to it, and “validate” the conspiracy in the minds of true believers.
There are more practical and less intrusive means of countering misinformation. First, we need a renewed emphasis on critical thinking skills in our schools. We shouldn’t teach our students what to think, but we do need to teach them how to think with a healthy level of skepticism. Second, it is important to recognize our own fallibility. We are born with a predisposition toward confirmation bias, and although we cannot alter our biology, we can become cognizant of our human limitations.
Additionally, as I discussed here, it might make sense to utilize crowdsourcing to slow the spread of misinformation online. Lastly, we may need to consider popping the filter bubbles that harbor these destructive echo chambers. New legislation could require that online platforms use algorithms that do not solely placate primordial tendencies toward confirmation bias, but instead feed users a steady diet of counter information as well.