Several Hollywood stars and politicians around the world have taken to social media to denounce Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s indifference toward the rainforest fires which raged on in the Amazon. Many of them, including public figures like Madonna, Cristiano Ronaldo, Leonardo DiCaprio to even French President Emmanuel Macron, posted photos of the fire on their social media platforms. However, most of them turned out to be outdated, or worse, of fires which took place in other parts of the world.
Misinformation - whether intentional or not - has become a real issue confronting social media users all over the world.
While the onus is on users to examine all online information with discerning lens, it is incumbent on media companies, opinion leaders and social media platforms to prevent the perpetuation of fake news.
Singapore’s government has taken credible steps in recent times to enforce the need to call out misinformation whenever it happens. Laws such as the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill are put in place to punish those who intentionally disseminate misinformation and fake news online.
While these measures are steps taken in the right direction, correcting misinformation is not as easy as calling out such mistakes. In fact, these efforts could backfire by reinforcing the erroneous piece of information.
Why calling out misinformation can backfire
In 2002, American psychologist, Colleen Seifert conducted an experiment on the Continuing Influence Effect. This term refers to the propensity of our minds to revert to misinformation in reasoning, even though that misinformation was supposed to have been removed by a correction.
Participants in the study affirmed that they were aware of the correction and they had read and understood it. Despite this, they reverted to using discredited information in their subsequent reasonings. While experts are not in agreement with what causes the continued influence of discredited information on reasoning, Australian cognitive scientists John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky, in their highly accessible “ The Debunking Handbook”, list three types of backfire effects.
- The Familiarity Backfire Effect
A piece of misinformation can be further entrenched in one’s mind just from being exposed to repetitions of it. So, a correction backfires because it repeats the misinformation in order to discredit it, but in doing so, perpetuates the misinformation.
- The Overkill Backfire Effect
Our minds are programmed with a mental preference for short and simple information as opposed to voluminous or complex information. Hence, while overwhelming evidence can be useful in refuting misinformation, the increased number and complexity of such arguments can tempt the mind into retaining simpler and cognitively easier falsehoods.
- The Worldview Backfire Effect
We tend to actively look for counterarguments to corrections that are not consistent with our cherished ideologies or value systems. Therefore, the effectiveness of attempts to debunk misinformation can be optimised or diminished when the values and views advocated by the correction are in line with those of the audience or otherwise.
In sum, misinformation is retained when it is repeated, simple, emotionally significant and easily used in reasoning.
Prevention is better than correction
In April, the Singapore Parliament passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill into law. The bill states that one response the government can take to guard against falsehoods is to issue a ‘Correction Direction’ or an order to publicise a correction notice.
This alone might be ineffective as the backfire theories have shown that just by repeating the correction can lead to the perpetuation of erroneous news instead of correcting such views. That said, there are several changes that can be made to increase the effectiveness of these corrections.
- Using visual cues like infographics to explain the core facts of the matter instead of emphasising the myth.
- The gaps left by debunking efforts should be filled with an alternative casual explanation for why the myth is wrong.
It is apparent that debunking misinformation can be a daunting task and there is no guarantee that corrections can be totally effective. So, taking steps to prevent the dissemination of misinformation is a better move than publicising corrections.
To this end, attempts to educate users to become discerning readers can enhance prevention efforts. Simple steps like knowing the source where such information comes from, comparing multiple reports, and not disseminating stories based on headlines are good starting points.
Besides doubling down on efforts to moderate and remove fake news stories online, we must also invest in public literacy and education efforts to ensure our sustained fight against misinformation is successful.
This article has been adapted from an earlier commentary: "Fanning the flames: When attempts to call out misinformation backfires" by Dr Adrian Kwek, Senior Lecturer, Centre for University Core, Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).