From a range of political conspiracy theories to COVID-19 cures, we are living in a time of significant misinformation. Increasingly, people appear willing to live by “facts” that best suit their own viewpoints, making it difficult to determine what’s true and what’s false.
Lisa Fazio, assistant professor of psychology and human development at Peabody College, studies how people learn new information, and how to mitigate the effects of false information.
“What’s different now is how quickly and how far misinformation can spread,” Fazio says. “Particularly with COVID-19, there is a lack of good, truthful information because scientists don’t yet have all the answers. That’s a place where misinformation can really breed.”
Though most of us believe we can identify false or misleading information, our brains often use “shortcuts” to fool us, Fazio says. “As long as information is good enough and generally fits with what we’re expecting to hear, we don’t necessarily notice if there is an error.”
Fazio says one way this happens is through knowledge neglect, where we may have the correct knowledge in our heads but fail to use that knowledge in the moment. Prior research also demonstrates that people often use unreliable cues, like repetition, to judge truth rather than more accurate cues, such as their prior knowledge or the source of the information.
In a recent study Fazio conducted with Vanderbilt undergraduates, students were more likely to agree with blatantly wrong statements—such as, “The part of the plant that grows underground is the stem”—when they had been repeated.
“When researchers talk about living in a post-truth world, they mean living in a society that doesn’t value the truth anymore, where people can lie without consequences and there’s no effort to get the correct information out there,” Fazio says. “I don’t think we’re there yet. I think Americans do value the truth, they value accuracy, and they want to see accurate information.”
Here are a few tips from Fazio to avoid knowledge neglect and spreading misinformation.
1. Don’t trust your gut.
If reading something gives you an emotional reaction, that’s when you should stop to think about whether it’s true or false. “If you think, ‘this is so great, I can’t wait for someone else to see it,’ that’s your time to pause,” says Fazio. Stop and ask, where does it come from? Is the source reputable? “One of the best things you can do to combat misinformation is to pause and think about what you’re reading rather than relying on your gut instinct.”
2. Google it.
Grab the text of a headline or a few words from a social media post and enter it into Google to see what pops up. “A lot of times you see either debunking of information or verification that it’s real,” says Fazio. “If it’s a real news article, there should be multiple recognizable news sources reporting that same information.”
3. Seeing is not believing.
Manipulating images on social media and websites is one of the most prevalent forms of misinformation. However, readers can use search engines to determine an image’s legitimacy by checking to see if it has been posted before. “These images can be detected easily,” Fazio says. “And in the future, it could be as simple as social media platforms keeping a database of these habitually reused images and labeling them as such.”
4. Read before sharing (or commenting).
Don’t share stories without reading them first, Fazio suggests, adding that we all can play a role in improving the quality of information available online. “There are a lot of forces at play that don’t always make it easy to discern what is true,” she says, “but we all have a responsibility to promote accurate information online.”