Helping science succeed info@nationalscience.org

Science Communication Institute > Interest > Why smart people do dumb things

This is the final segment of an unintentionally three-part series on misinformation and disinformation. In the first segment we discussed how social media algorithms amplify hate and conflict and how misinformation and misunderstanding can be a function of too much information being interpreted in too many distinctly non-expert ways. The second segment covered false equivalencies as the action most directly responsible for powering the most influential disinformation campaigns. To make false equivalency work, trusted and popular entertainers like Joe Rogan, Tucker Carlson and Jenny McCarthy create logical fallacies that contrast the views of genuine experts with the views of those who have misinterpreted the facts and/or are promoting misinformation or disinformation (pretty much the same way—except for without the comedy—that Gilda Radner’s character, Emily Litella, would make guest appearances on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update to complain about issues like Soviet Jewelry). By mixing these opinions together, disentangling truth from fiction is left up to audiences.

This third and final segment takes a deeper looks at the psychological mechanisms behind misinformation and disinformation.

 


 

Steve is a successful small business owner, well-read, active in his community, and a wonderful parent and friend. He’s also a QAnon believer, thinks Democrats are child trafficking cannibals, and refuses to get the COVID vaccine because Bill Gates is trying to control our brains with microchips. Assuming Steve isn’t mentally ill, shouldn’t he know better?

Not necessarily, according to psychologists, social psychologists, communication and marketing experts, and snake oil salesmen (some politicians included). Smart people throughout history have been easy marks for con artists. Why? We know about the key factors on the “supply side” of disinformation, like social media algorithms, the vast bulk of information available today, and the use of false equivalencies by the most popular disinformation spreaders. But what’s at work on the “processing side” that makes all of us—smart and dumb alike—vulnerable to disinformation?

Critical thinking skills are one such processing mechanism. Steve may be smart, but being smart isn’t the same as being a good critical thinker. People who are born smart might be able to recite Shakespeare sonnets from memory or play chess blindfolded. Critical thinking, on the other hand, is a learned skill which allows us to better analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information (from observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication). Critical thinking allows us to better understand what information is real and relevant and how it all fits together, identify mistakes in our reasoning, solve problems systematically, deduce consequences, and seek out relevant sources of new information. Several recent studies suggest people who believe in conspiracy theories may in fact have lower critical thinking skills than people who aren’t persuaded by these theories.

Another important processing mechanism at work is the entire suite of psychological and social psychology forces acting on Steve. The pressure to conform, for example, is immensely powerful, as social psychologists have known for decades now. And we know a lot from social psychology and social neuroscience about how smart people in groups can make bad decisions, how social behavior both influences and is influenced by the activities of our brain, how we strive to protect and improve the well-being of our in-group, how repeated exposure to incorrect information makes it harder to believe correct information later, how we tend to forget where information came from (meaning a conspiracy website’s news will have the same weight as NBC news over time once we forget where we heard it), and how we often make judgements about believability based on who sounds more believable, which answers seem more intuitive, which speaker is more attractive or likable, and so much more. Humans, as it turns out, are notoriously imperfect judges of objective truth.

As if all these mechanisms weren’t enough, we also know a lot about the power of cognitive dissonance—convincing ourselves a lie must be truth if all our friends, family and neighbors believe the lie. Conversion under this pressure is (for most) just a matter of time. We can get pushed out onto an intellectual tree branch, where our critical thinking skills tell us the risk-reward of remaining the lone holdout just doesn’t compute. Eventually, it’s easier to just conform, and the sky really does look green, come to think of it.

One might argue, in fact (although this is just an observation and is not drawn from actual social psychology research), that these influences develop a sort of feedback loop causing society itself to become “smart” or “stupid”—“societal IQ” if you will, every bit as variable and malleable as individual IQ. This hypothetical metric doesn’t necessarily march constantly upward with the advance of science and discovery. A low societal IQ can also suffocate knowledge, achievement and expression when society embraces belief systems which stifle or alter reality. Consider, for example, how the Catholic Church suppressed the advance of science in the Western world for 1500 years by insisting (on pain of imprisonment or death) the earth was the center of the universe and all knowledge already existed and just needed to be “rediscovered” (as per Aristotle’s teachings). This constraint didn’t mean there weren’t advances in art, technology, or architecture during this period, but in all matters in conflict with church teachings (from education to social rights to science) our understanding of the world was suffocated, which in turn affected society and societal evolution.

We can make similar observations about how the twisted and institutionally-supported logic allowing slavery to exist and persist affected (and is still affecting) our individual and social evolution (to say nothing of the horrific cost in human life and suffering slavery exacted); or how the global downward pressure on women’s rights persisting to this day has been caught in a similar feedback loop; or how a demagogue like Donald Trump can cleave off a large segment of an otherwise healthy, high-functioning society and so smother it in an alternative reality that the world’s most successful democracy starts teetering on the precipice of collapse. Magnifying these dynamics, throughout history the perception of being attacked—especially during actual war—only further amplifies the “rally around the flag” effect, where each side can’t possibly be wrong, and all our perceptions of right and wrong, just and unjust actions, and truth and lie get filtered through a lens of trying to protect our group.

Personal beliefs and reasoning, then, are shaped by the societies and cultures we live in, and vice versa. Except for purely objective matters like math and science (and even here some experts think there isn’t 100 percent objectivity), we are only as “smart” as the societies we live in allow us to be, and in return, our societies are only as “smart” as the individuals who inhabit them.

So, psychology, social influences, brain wiring, thinking skills, feedback loops, physical threats and more are all involved in how disinformation soaks into our brains. But how does this happen exactly? If we think of disinformation as a tree falling in the forest, and psychology as the filter through which we experience the noise this falling tree makes, then what is the mechanism carrying this noise through the air and into our ears? At the risk of sounding too obvious, the answer we’re angling for here is communication in its many forms—speech, writing, art, music, advertising, entertainment. In all interactions, from personal relationships to business, politics and science, communication is how knowledge, opinions and perceptions are shared from one person to another. Most often, these exchanges just happen in a seemingly neutral space. Beliefs grow, shrink, migrate, evolve, mature, diminish. At other times, communication is clearly weaponized to promote political views, sell products, or influence the court of public opinion for better or worse. At all times, though, communication is the medium through which our perceptions are shaped, and this medium is never—can never—be utterly objective, save for data exchanges between computers. In the right hands, communication can educate, entertain, enrich, and uplift, expand our minds and cure disease. In the wrong hands, communication can gradually or rapidly erode social bonds, divide communities, accuse and convict the innocent through mob justice, change truth to lie, and unleash hate on massive scales.

When disinformation is deployed at scale, the effects on society can be devastating—indeed, they might be unavoidable. Nazi Germany is often cited as an example of how communication can destroy. Under the leadership of chief propogandist Josef Goebbels, the Nazi state bred hatred and amplified prejudice so successfully they flipped from a republic to a dictatorship in just a few years. The people of Germany weren’t entirely accepting of Jews before Hitler’s rise, of course, but neither were they virulently anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism had been part of the historical landscape in Europe for centuries prior to Hitler—widespread discrimination was common, occasionally culminating in pogroms throughout Europe. But eastern Europe in particular was also home to a growing, thriving and vibrant Jewish community, increasingly so at the start of the twentieth century with the rise of Zionism and the rebirth of Jewish hope and unity.

What changed during the Hitler years was the state used its power and voice to unleash dormant hate, divide society into ins and outs, create disinformation narratives blaming the outs for society’s ills, and otherwise gave permission for people to let loose the hatred they couldn’t otherwise express in civilized society. Once the wheels of this hate machine started turning, hatred spread farther, faster and deeper than ever before possible.

History will show Donald Trump, although hopefully no Hitler, has created the same effect in America and beyond, fanning the flames of division and hate that once unleashed are now flickering to a life of their own. The tools of Trump’s propaganda machine are not unlike Hitler’s: Fox News, in effect the official right wing state media outlet; evangelical churches, who have through a fascinating (clinically speaking) twist of logic bought into and promoted the myth of Trump as savior; militia groups who have taken it upon themselves to defend white society; book bans aimed at eliminating uncomfortable opinions; and an army of right wing malcontents, invading school boards and voting offices, promoting a constant drumbeat of anti-liberalism rooted in the fantasy the left is destroying everything good and decent in society and intellectualism is an enemy of the state.

So why, historians ask, can’t we see these dynamics at work today and simply push back? Unfortunately, that’s just not how communication works, or how our brains are wired. Since we shape and are shaped by our society, we can’t, acting alone, simply compel a society to change course, like the protagonist Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984. Change takes both time and widespread engagement, and until these things happen, great damage can occur.

This doesn’t mean we are powerless to change society, though. It just means we need to find the right levers to pull and the right means by which to pull them. Exactly what this action looks like will vary by society and circumstance, of course. To combat our modern scourge of disinformation, here are ten actions the US might be able to take:

  1. Increase efforts to disable the financing and technology behind Russia’s state-sponsored disinformation machine, which is responsible for most of Facebook’s large-scale disinformation campaigns.
  2. Hold Facebook and other social media platforms legally accountable for how they spread disinformation. The idea getting the most traction in this regard is to revise Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act to require Facebook and other social media giants to exert reasonable care to ensure the content they promote is not harmful. This isn’t an infringement on free speech, but an effort to ensure bad actors don’t exploit the system and cause widespread harm (in Facebook’s defense, no one realized in 1996 this could happen; hence, an update of the law is in order)
  3. Help Christian evangelical churches stop acting as accomplices in the spread of disinformation. Exactly what this might involve is unclear—preferably an enlightened approach as opposed to legal sanctions, but bringing hate speech actions to bear (including suspending tax-exempt status) shouldn’t be off the table.
  4. Prevent influential purveyors of disinformation and hate speech (including but not limited to Fox News) from owning any part of the federally-auctioned radio or television communication spectrum or participating in any federal communication programs (like the Universal Services Fund or National Broadband Plan). In the private sector, encourage similar corporate social responsibility moves, such as how Dish Networks recently dropped the One American Network.
  5. Reform our electoral system, starting with campaign finance laws so politicians aren’t allowed to raise unlimited corporate donations. Without more fiscal accountability, hate mongering politicians can accumulate huge campaign war chests and promote speech at extreme odds with the constituents they represent. Reforming voting rights legislation is equally important to ensure everyone’s vote is heard and voting boundaries fairly represent populations and opinions.
  6. Create no-strings-attached federal support mechanisms for legitimate journalism so it survives and isn’t paywalled from the general public. This strategy would be similar to how the federal government already supports regional airports to ensure rural America’s transportation needs are well served. Make sure, for example, local newspapers can continue to operate, and center-leaning national news broadcasts (ABC, CBS, NBC, NPR, PBS) are available for free to all citizens everywhere.
  7. Create critical thinking and information literacy curriculums for all students, beginning in grade school and continuing through high school.
  8. Call out the practice of false equivalencies in “news” and other public broadcasts— maybe even create a long running national public service announcement campaign (like School House Rock) to help educate the public about what this practice looks and sounds like.
  9. Consider how we can hold all public figures, including presidents, more accountable for hate speech in real time—not years after the fact, but as an immediate consequence of invoking the Holocaust to talk about mask mandates, or calling Mexican immigrants rapists, or stoking anti-Asian hate by calling COVID the China virus. By not responding quickly and decisively, we give license to hate, and we normalize disinformation. The breakwater of civility gets eroded farther and farther down until hate washes over us unabated. And finally,
  10. Open a national dialogue about misinformation and disinformation. Make it a subject of public conversation, education and debate. The more we all see and understand what’s happening, the more we’ll be able to work on the right solutions together.

We can make these types of changes if we believe the disinformation problem is real and threatening, and, of course, if we believe we’re capable of saving ourselves. We shouldn’t lose hope in this regard. Humans are fundamentally moral—not just our social structures, but biologically as well since it is in our own evolutionary best interest to help each other survive. Granted, this morality has always existed in tension with self-interest, but realizing we’re only as civilized as the societies we inhabit should compel us to hold our societies more accountable for protecting the moral integrity of our futures. To-date, we’ve asked societies to provide the basics like food, laws, transportation, education, jobs, entertainment, and convenience. Going forward, we also need society to understand their proper role in protecting objective truth as well—which is a different charge than protecting free speech—-not by regulating speech but by understanding how communication works today and taking action to protect these mechanisms from being overwhelmed by bad actors.

Dictatorships, of course, have already long understood and fine-tuned this dynamic. It’s time for democratic societies to come to grips with this challenge too. Imagine the progress we could make together if we spent less time defending ourselves from the idiotic musings of 8chan owner Ron Watkins (aka QAnon), and more time working together to solve homelessness, hunger, and climate change. To get there from here, free society will need everyone to become more critical consumers of information, and work together to help our governments, institutions and fellow citizens better navigate the realities of the modern communication world.

 


 

For additional reading, please see: