The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread

The purveyors of disinformation exploit certain basic cognitive biases. The most often cited is confirmation bias, which is the idea that we seek information that confirms what we already believe. In “The Misinformation Age,” the philosophers O’Connor and Weatherall show that even scientists, who by definition are seeking the impartial truth, can be swayed by biases and bad data to come to a collective false belief.

All human beings have a reflexive tendency to reject new evidence when it contradicts established belief. A variation of this is the backfire effect, which states that attempts to disabuse someone of a firmly held belief will only make them more certain of it. So, if you are convinced of the absurd accusation that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex trafficking ring from Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in Washington D.C., you will double down when I explain how patently false the claim is.

The authors contend that mainstream media coverage can often amplify disinformation rather than debunking it. All the news stories about Cosmic Pizza likely confirmed the prejudices of the people who believed it, while spreading the conspiracy theory to potential new adherents. For decades, Russian information warfare and other state promoters of disinformation have exploited the press’s reflex to write about “both sides” — even if one side is promoting lies. This is a trap, the authors argue. Treating both sides of an argument as equivalent when one side is demonstrably false is just doing the work of the purveyors of disinformation.