Expert Commentary

Misinformation and its correction: Continued influence and successful debiasing

2012 metastudy in Psychological Science in the Public Interest on how misinformation originates and spreads and why it is difficult to correct.


A successful democracy requires well-informed citizens, but what if the information at their disposal is not accurate?  Examples of misinformation are widespread and range from inflated advertising claims and political accusations to flawed scientific findings and assertions over health and medical issues. The scholar Cass Sunstein has written of the effects of “biased assimilation,” and how the echo-chamber of polarized groups is more susceptible to rumor- or conspiracy-based “information cascades.”

So how does misinformation start, how does it spread, and what can be done to counteract its effects? A 2012 metastudy from the University of Western Australia, University of Michigan, and University of Queensland published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, “Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing,” focuses on how misinformation originates and spreads, why it is difficult to correct, and how best to counteract it.

Key study findings include:

  • Misinformation may be an unavoidable byproduct of sharing incomplete or evolving knowledge such as news coverage of unfolding events or early scientific research findings. (A contemporary media example: in December 2012, initial reports misidentified the Newtown, Conn., shooter as the brother of the actual shooter, Adam Lanza.)
  • A cultural norm predisposes listeners to believe that speakers are typically honest and free from ulterior motives. Researchers identified four types of misinformation that are often used to intentionally deceive or confuse:  rumors and fiction; government and politicians; vested interests; and the media.
  • An individual assesses the truthfulness of information by comparing it to what they already know; determining how well the information fits into a broader, coherent story; confirming the reputation of the source; and confirming that other individuals believe the information to be true.
  • “The Internet has revolutionized the availability of information; however, it has also facilitated the spread of misinformation because it obviates the use of conventional “gate-keeping” mechanisms, such as professional editors…. Internet users have moved from being passive consumers of information to actively creating content on websites such as Twitter and YouTube or blogs.” The Internet has also fueled increasing media fractionalization and polarization, which allows users to pick and choose news that supports their existing understandings.
  • Retractions may fail to counteract the effects of misinformation due to the durability of an individual’s existing mental model of what he or she understands to be true; the way information is stored and retrieved; how well the misinformation confirmed existing biases; and a general dislike of “authoritative” language sometimes used in retractions.
  • The researchers have identified three strategies to improve the effectiveness of retractions: a warning before exposure to a possible source of misinformation (such as a declaration presented at the start of a fictional work); multiple repetitions of the new, correct information; and a comprehensive explanation with a compelling, coherent storyline that a conventional retraction might lack.
  • Even strategic retractions can exacerbate the problem, however: “People will refer more to misinformation that is in line with their attitudes and will be relatively immune to corrections, such that retractions may even backfire and strengthen the initially held beliefs.” This “boomerang” effect can also desensitize individuals to future attempts to correct erroneous information.

The researchers note that retractions with the greatest chance of success acknowledge an individual’s existing beliefs and offer a comprehensive alternate worldview. Persistent misinformation may respond best to “nudging,” or introducing behavioral interventions, such as promoting low-emission vehicles even as some continue to question climate change. Perhaps the best antidote to misinformation, the authors suggest, is maintaining a skeptical attitude and an open mind.

In related research, a 2012 report from the New America Foundation, “Misinformation and Fact-checking: Research Findings from Social Science,” examines relevant cognitive and psychological research on public policy-related communications; it highlights key ideas in this area such as information deficit fallacy, motivated reasoning theory and the dynamics of belief perseverance. Another important study in this area, “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus,” explores cultural issues that can influence how individuals process information. Also of interest is “That’s Not the Way It Is: How User-Generated Comments on the News Affect Perceived Media Bias,” which found that news readers “invested in an issue and fearful that their position is ‘losing ground’ in the press are more likely to perceive hostile media bias.”

Tags: metastudy, cognition, communication, climate politics

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