As Americans struggle with multiple crises, from COVID to infrastructure failures in Texas, disinformation is playing a significant role in shaping policy debates.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, American attention on the problem of disinformation has increased dramatically. While Russia has put disinformation at the forefront of its international information operations and strategy, it is hardly the only player in the game. In addition to deliberate disinformation campaigns undertaken by domestic actors in the United States, the challenge we face in America is compounded by the susceptibility of the public to this disinformation. This translates directly into action by those affected by the false information, carried out in the way they make decisions, or whether they choose to oppose government institutions. This was demonstrated in grand fashion in the attacks on the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
Beyond merely being vulnerable to disinformation, many who fall prey to it become active disseminators of the same disinformation. They act as relays, compounding the problem and amplifying the perceived credibility of the falsehoods.
Though some disinformation seems harmless, our willingness to accept it can cost lives. So why do so many believe in disinformation and actively circulate it?
1.) Confirmation Bias
For many, disinformation provides confirmation of information they already believe to be true, even when it is false. This bias causes people to grant greater credibility to information that confirms their belief, regardless of its source. Basically, as long as the disinformation affirms pre-existing beliefs, it appears to be true. Additionally, confirmation bias may encourage an individual to specifically seek out information that confirms their beliefs, while rejecting information that may contradict that belief.
2.) Stimulates intellectual laziness
Disinformation can be convenient, allowing believers to skip the steps necessary to confirm the truthfulness of the information. The confirmation bias previously discussed encourages the antithesis of the scientific method, by discouraging rigorous testing of the theory proposed by the disinformation at hand.
It decreases the motivation for an individual to seek out information that challenges one’s personal views. The quick confirmation of one’s preconceptions allows an individual to be lazy, and avoid doing the intellectual work necessary to process and understand information that may be contrary to their initial impression. This subsequently decreases the willingness of a person to use critical thinking to analyze the validity of the information they are receiving in the first place.
3.) Unites isolated believers into cohesive groups, increasing legitimacy
In an average social group, the number of people who believe in a particular kernel of disinformation may be very low. This reduces the potential power of the disinformation as it does not reach the critical mass of support that would allow an individual or small group to act upon it in a significant manner. Internet-based social media allows these small numbers to connect with like-minded groups and individuals, allowing for affirmation, coordination, expansion, and subsequently increasing the size of the echo chamber. Radicalization can occur without the need for any physical contact.
The ability of this now-unified larger group to spread its message increases its credibility on the basis of volume alone.
4.) Removes shame
As people connect with others that share their misinformed views, particularly those outside of societal norms, they are more likely to feel the safety and feeling of affirmation that comes with acceptance by others. This subsequently removes potential shame felt from expressing those views openly. As more people express fringe views fueled by the circulation of disinformation, the norms against those falsehood-driven views erode, breaking down barriers for people to openly organize around and further spread false information.
5.) Provides political expediency
Disinformation provides a compelling tool for justifying certain political objectives. An individual may be inclined to support a political stance with anything that can be used for justification, regardless of the truthfulness of that information. If the disinformation strengthens a political position, it can be used to the benefit of the person or people advocating for their own benefit. For this reason, disinformation is often generated for the purpose of achieving political goals. Those that are sympathetic to those goals may choose to adopt the same disinformation in support.
6.) Provides a relief valve
When confronted with facts contradicting one’s views, disinformation provides a relief valve or escape route, through which an individual can decrease the personal pressure of realizing they may be wrong. The feeling of rightness and vindication provided by disinformation that is contrary to the facts can satisfy the instinctive “fight or flight” response in a manner that calms anxiety.
7.) Comes from a source perceived as ‘credible’
What matters here is not the actual credibility of the source, but whether that particular source is credible to the recipient of the information. This is entirely based on perception. To a person susceptible to disinformation, ‘credible’ sources can be friends, family, or other sources deemed trustworthy by audience, such as like-minded people or media outlets. In other cases, credibility comes from political figures commanding significant influence. The personal relationship an individual holds with this source can determine how a person responds to the information, and may be a vital tool in helping that individual to accept truthful information over another source providing disinformation.
8.) Provides a sense of power, knowledge, certainty, and autonomy
Embracing disinformation can give one a sense of control and autonomy over their lives, particularly in situations where they feel they don’t have control or feel uncertain. The sense that they know the ‘truth’ that others do not provides them a sense of knowledge and certainty. Knowing what they supposedly aren’t supposed to know, and having beat the system that would deny them that information, satisfies a need for autonomy and power over their lives. When they feel out of control of their personal situations, disinformation or conspiracy theories might provide them with a suitable explanation as to why they don’t have control.
9.) Provides convenient explanations for the difficult to fathom
Sometimes, reality doesn’t meet the expectation. In these cases, disinformation is generated to explain the situation. For instance, the ideas that terrorists with box cutters could have successfully destroyed the twin towers or damaged the Pentagon, or that a President of the United States could be killed by a single person, seem so preposterous that they couldn’t possibly be explained by their simple realities. The expectation is that the most powerful country on earth could prevent these events. Thus, people begin buying into the idea that there must be another explanation.
10.) Stimulates an Emotional Reaction
People are inherently emotional creatures. Disinformation is intended to take advantage of this, thereby increasing the attractiveness of the information, and encouraging a reaction. This reaction could include feeling good about oneself, due to access to information that others perceivably do not have, or due to the affirmation of rightness it provides. That emotional reaction, whether a feeling of vindication or anger, increases the likeliness that someone will take action in response. Disinformation is designed to capture our attention, and generating an emotional response is one means for doing so.
Disinformation is neither a new problem nor one that is going away. The divisions created by disinformation are those that foreign adversaries seek to exploit, and must be addressed. In its current state, much of American society is extremely susceptible to disinformation from sources from a variety of political and non-political persuasions.
To combat this problem, the United States needs to better address the need to inoculate its citizens against disinformation. This means enabling them with a set of skills intended to generate a cognitive immune response to disinformation. Americans need to better recognize the tell-tale signs of disinformation, how they are being manipulated, and begin an instinctive response against the deceitful material.
If our country fails to better enable its citizens against the spread of disinformation, it will find itself liking and sharing its way into irrelevancy.