Misinformation: why is it so hard to get rid of?

If you’re anything like me, you ask yourself the same question every time you open up a news app! Despite widespread fact-checking on topics as broad as Covid-19, vaccines, and 5G networks, once false facts get out there, it’s extraordinarily difficult to remove them.

Whether it’s global rises in vaccine-preventable diseases, or more Iranians dying in one province from a so-called “Covid-19 cure” than the virus itself, the real-world challenges misinformation creates cannot be underestimated.

In this article, we’ll go on a whistle-stop tour of misinformation research: why it’s so hard to get rid of, what things you might be doing to reinforce it, and practical recommendations to consider as part of your strategic communication planning.

Fact checking can make us believe misinformation more.

The more we hear something, the more likely we are to think it’s true.

Our brain processes 11 billion bits of communication per minute, so it’s got a few short cuts to help find meaning in the deluge of information.

If someone has friends sharing misinformation, they’re more likely to believe it’s true through exposure. This can work against public service communications efforts in surprising ways.

Say you make a fact sheet debunking some false claims. On one side you show the misinformation. On the other you show the truth. That’ll fix the problem, right? Oddly, no. By repeating the original false belief, studies have shown you can make the false information seem more trustworthy, just because you repeated it!

Changing worldviews takes more than soundbites.

It all comes down to the way we think. When you’re eating out in a fine restaurant, you know there are certain behaviours that are appropriate. You don’t pick your teeth with your cutlery or use your hands to pick up your food. If you walk into McDonald’s, you might do the opposite.

How does this relate to communications?

Your brain does the same thing with misinformation. We use mental models to help us understand things in the world around us.

Mental models are a series of attitudes, beliefs and perceptions related to a given option. You don’t mind standing in line waiting for your food at McDonalds, but if that happened at a fine dining restaurant, you’d probably walk out! Why? There are different mental models for each experience.

If you tell people something is wrong without explaining why, they’re unlikely to change their mental model. Just like if you tried to convince someone they should eat restaurant food with their fingers! The more complete your explanation, the more likely a person is to adapt their mental model.

6 key principles for combating misinformation

Australian researchers have come up with 6 principles to guide anti-misinformation communications (adapted below). When you’re doing your strategic planning, keep the following principles in mind for measurable results.

  • Credible source. When people think you’re trustworthy, they are more likely to give credit to your messaging.
  • Affirm values. Endorse the values of your audience to make it easier for them to change their mental models (possibly due to cushioning them against identity threat.)
  • Harness social norms. We like to belong. Connect your messaging to cultural norms (showing what should be or what people already do.)
  • Give people a heads up. Warning people about misinformation before they encounter it can minimise the risk of them believing it down the track.
  • Use design for emphasis. Attract attention to key points. Don’t just rely on text: we’re all time-poor and surrounded by information clamouring for our attention!
  • Make it easy to process. The easier your factual information is to process, the more likely your audience are to accept it as true.

 

How can you use these insights in your communication strategies?

#1 Expect big changes to take time.

  • If you want to address misinformation, building the perceived authority, credibility and trustworthiness through regular, high-quality communications is key. That’s not an overnight process!
  • The “medium is the message.” What quality looks like to your audience depends on their content preferences. If you’re building scientific literacy among Gen Z, factsheets may not get much traction (but an interactive Snapchat filter or Instagram Story series might.)
  • If you’re not in a position to build your organisation into a trusted influencer, see if there are other people or organisations out there that already have trusted connections with your audience.

#2 Great communications depend on context.

  • Do you know your audience? What does the misinformation they believe mean to them? If you have the budget to go out and talk to people in your citizen group, do!
  • This allows you to shape key messaging that aligns with their values and meets current knowledge levels. If not, proximal data like consumer surveys or digital behaviours can help identify areas of interest.

#3 Measure, measure, measure.

  • How do you know your messaging is changing people’s views? By following up. Different tools suit different stages on the awareness journey but measuring the contribution of activities to your communication goals is key.
  • When looking for evidence of attitude changes, it’s good to talk with people face-to-face. Focus groups and cognitive interviewing techniques can be useful

Misinformation is a many-headed beast. It takes time, consistent communications and careful planning to combat over time.

Want to talk through your tactics? Let us know: we’d be happy to help.

 

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