Misinformation is riding a digital wave. Here’s how we can counter it

Misinformation will always be with us. If we use innovative tools smartly, we can ensure it stays on the edges of our democratic process, writes Jess Berenston-Shaw, author of the newly published A Matter of Fact

We have heard a lot about free-speech recently. Two Canadians turned up to share what I regard as racist and sexist views with New Zealanders and found they got red carded by some venues. They still managed to get their ideas aired on some significant platforms.

Don Brash and a group called the Free Speech Coalition have become agitated that there is a significant threat to our right to expression and so our democratic freedoms generally. It is a classic slippery slope argument. You may have heard one of the Canadians frequently use such a technique. Don’t let them spread their lies about women and religious groups? Next up we are stoning women to death!

But this is a case of stoking people’s fears to get them to focus on an issue that is not actually a problem In New Zealand. We are indeed on the top of a slope, but the not the mountain that Don Brash thinks we are on. The mountain we are really standing on is one of disinformation and misinformation created and used by powerful groups and spread and believed by people using digital media. This is the real challenge to our democracy.

The three-fold challenge

A critical part of well-functioning democracy is a well-informed public (including politicians). A functional democracy needs citizens who recognise misinformation and disinformation; people who can identify good information and make their decisions based upon it. However, we face three major challenges to this. First, the creation of misinformation and disinformation by those with power (or seeking it). Second, the rapid spread, and our repeated exposure to this false and polarised information. And third, the widespread assumption that people first apply logic to process and understand all the information we hear. Humans apply logic after considering information in the context of their values and existing beliefs. Once misinformation is embedded it is extremely difficult to shift with the presentation of true information in part because of this.

Together the manipulation of information, the rise and rise of digital media and human brains being as they are, all help to embed the type of false information you might hear from the Canadians or Don Brash. Even with the exact same platform and exposure (which is not the case mostly) it is not a fair fight between good and bad information.

In my new book A Matter of Fact, I argue that the manipulation of information by people for personal or organisational gain (either intentionally or not) is not new. Neither is people believing it. But the pairing of manipulated information with the new tools of digital media is removing power from the public. Digital and social media has helped spread and embed incorrect information very successfully. And it is one of the factors preventing people from using the best information, well researched and valid information, to make well informed decisions about what to do about solving the big issues of our time. Issues including climate change, vaccination, gender inequity, and racism for example. It is hugely challenging to get majority or more privileged groups to support pro-equity policies for exactly this reason.

Stoking fears and emotions

One common form of information manipulation we see is the framing of issues in values that encourage beliefs and action harmful to a co-operative society. For example, we frequently see issues framed by fear. Donald Trump does it, politicians do it, news editors do it, opinion writers do it. People frame an issue to focus us on our personal safety. In doing so they are encouraging us to prioritise our “security values”.

When we prioritise our security values it is difficult to think about what else we value. For example, living in a tolerant society that takes care of everyone. Instead we will accept incorrect information believing it will work to protect us. When people frame an issue in security values we have no motivation to hear evidence showing we can achieve a more tolerant society.

We dwell, for example, on the threat that “snake like” lines of immigrants in K-Mart presents. People claim very tight immigration policies will protect our jobs, houses, parking space or whatever. We believe it because at this point we value our security most. This framing is then repeated ad nauseum across media channels, workplaces, op-eds and dinner tables.

We lose the opportunity to have a decent public conversation based on good information as the framing drowns out our ability to prioritise other values and see other evidence.

Finding shared helpful values

It is easy to engage values like fear or competition in people. Yet in general these are not what New Zealanders think matters most. Rather, we value creativity, innovation, taking care of people and broadmindedness (marriage equality bill anyone?). These shared helpful values are the key to building environments in which people see and believe good information and to overcoming misinformation.

In A Matter of Fact I discuss how we can frame evidence about important social issues through the lens of shared helpful values. These sorts of frames lead to a greater likelihood that people will see and believe the evidence that scientists and researchers produce, but that is too often ignored or overshadowed in public debate.

Frame evidence about climate change, for example, through values of care for each other (as opposed to our demise in a mega storm). People are much more likely to see and act on effective climate action evidence if you do.

There are other complex factors at play in good knowledge translation, of course. Anything involving people always involves complexity. Prevailing cultural narratives, and how far away from the evidence these are, are also important. Having a shared understanding of the problem does also help.  

Value-based framing is one innovative tool that we can draw hope from. To help us to build public and political environments more receptive to good information than to misinformation and lies.

Misinformation will always be with us. What we can do is use innovative tools to ensure it stays on the edges of our democratic process rather than in the centre.


Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is author of the just-published BWB Text  A Matter of Fact, which explores how to help people see, believe and act on good information in a post-truth world.


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