- Misinformation can come in many forms; but at its core, it’s a biased, skewed, or flat-out wrong representation of a current event or subject of public interest. This sort of unscrupulous journalism mostly concerns politics.
- Outside influences are partially to blame for our susceptibility to misinformation. Our bodies experience a spike in testosterone levels when our political candidate loses, and the resulting anger makes us more likely to give into biased misinformation.
- Psychologists have even discovered that hearing the same inaccurate information repeatedly can trick our brains into eventually believing it.
- Misinformation is easily spread virtually, through social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, where users can share a misinformed post with hundred or even thousands of people.
- Because content can be shared so easily online, everyone has the potential to spread misinformation every time they post. With great power comes the great need to check your sources before posting content, especially if it’s political.
No one enjoys being lied to—but chances are, you’re absorbing some form of misleading or skewed information every day. This is known as misinformation—purposefully deviant reporting that aims to trigger an emotional response, usually in favor of the creator’s own biases. It can spread like wildfire across social media platforms, tapping into our emotions and eliciting powerful responses that drive the hooks in deeper.
Misinformation has always been around, but now it has the potential to be shared on a scale that’s national, or even global. For better or worse, misinformation is often attached to political news. From watching our political candidate lose to disagreeing with a friend of the opposite party, politics are a constant in everyday life.
The subject can stimulate some intense emotions, and political misinformation often seeks to stir the pot, polarizing along party lines, instead of seeking or highlighting common ground. Political misinformation can widen the divide. That’s why it’s up to each of us to look into the media we absorb while we’re online, reading, or watching televised news; without realizing it, we can get sucked into the misinformation.
Certain Events Make Us Susceptible to Misinformation
For those old enough to remember, the 2012 Presidential Race was a historical event that culminated in the election of President Barack Obama. Both he and his opponent Gov. Mitt Romney’s supporters came out in droves to support their nominee; and although Romney accepted his loss gracefully (and showed support for President Obama at crucial moments during his presidency), some of his supporters didn’t take the L as well. Part of that had to do with misinformation alleging that President Obama unfairly won the election through various ways—which caused many Romney supporters to refute Obama’s campaign results for two terms.
According to a study released this year, it may not be entirely their fault, though. New research published in the Psychoneuroendocrinology Journal indicates that watching their favored candidate lose the election triggered an increase in their body’s testosterone levels. This phenomenon was then found to be observable and predictable on a nationwide scale during election cycles. Testosterone is well-known for being the “male” sexual chemical (despite being found in both men and women), but it also plays a role in human behavior. Scientists believe that higher levels of testosterone are associated with, among other characteristics, increased aggression and becoming prone to anger. High-T stimulates us to “compete” in whatever modern ways our brains deem fit, which isn’t always a bad thing, by itself.
But when combined with political misinformation, the results could be disastrous. It’s worth questioning whether a burst of elevated testosterone levels may have had a role to play in the more-recent January insurrection, where protestors stormed the U.S. Capitol building after having been fed with (you guessed it) misinformation, that indicated then-President Donald Trump had been usurped by way of fraudulent voting. The point? Misinformation doesn’t just affect our beliefs but can take even take advantage of our emotions, too.
The Hypnotic Spell of Repetition and Virtual Ripple Effects
Another deceiving tactic (one often utilized by news sources) is the repetitive deliverance of misinformation; re-posting, or incessantly covering a biased representation of the facts to sink in a message. This is another psychologically-proven way that misinformative media sources influence our opinions. The more we hear and process false information, the more likely we are to eventually believe it.
Perhaps you haven’t shared any flat earth theories with your Twitter friends, but what about an opinionated tweet that you made before you’d gathered all the facts about an event or situation?
Whatever we share will be viewed by a portion of our followers who may adopt those same false views, post their own content in support of that misinformation, and influence even more people, setting off a ripple effect. Everyone in the online age is a potential journalist with far-reaching potential, whether we realize it or not.
It’s Deeper Than Politics: Understanding the Division
Misinformation is also assisted by the fact that political divisions in the U.S. have never been wider, and that chasm is expanding. As reported by the PsyPost, a new study found that Republicans and Democrats don’t see each other as evil, but as stupid. Each side believes that the other is being fed misinformation that they somehow continue to believe, despite evidence from other sources pointing to an opposite conclusion. But when that evidence takes the form of other media sources, the political divide widens. The news channels we choose, the social media platforms we have accounts with, and even the products that we buy, may have political affiliations that we are supporting or representing, sometimes without even being aware.
Misinformation affects all of us equally and poses a serious challenge to our national mental health and the fabric of our society. Perhaps it’s time that we examine the angle spun toward us. When a media source reports on current events via social media posts, online or print articles, or tv segments, you can guard yourself against misinformation by:
- Training yourself to spot implicit bias: An accurate report on any event will include sources. Examine what you’re reading: What are their sources? Is the source they’re citing considered credible?
- Paying attention to how current events (and the way that they’re reported to you) affect your emotions: Whether tragic, uplifting, angering, or simply ‘meh’, any time you receive new information from a media source, it’s going to affect your emotions. These reactions are natural (your brain is processing a new reality, right?), but biased media sources know how to elicit certain emotional responses that keep you hooked on a cycle of misinformation.
- Diversifying your friend group or social circle: Similarly to if we only receive news from the same media source, our friends and those within our social circle often match our personal beliefs. This is often because it’s more comfortable to avoid clashing constantly on different topics, but even with someone who holds “different” beliefs, there are inevitably many other topics that you will agree on, even if it doesn’t seem like it. These are like social oases, and they are a crucial way to expand your worldview.
- Remaining mindful of how your own opinions and the content you post can affect the actions of others: Posting on social media feels like our own little ecosystem. We only engage or affect those we’re connected with virtually. Though this is true, we don’t consider how our virtual content has the ability to spread beyond our field of view on Twitter, TikTok, Facebook—anything, really. Spreading misinformation can happen quickly: We read a volatile, poorly cited article implying or boldly stating a biased opinion concerning a topic we care about. Wanting to share with others, we post a link, without realizing that inaccurate information has been shared with hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people.
Our Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok accounts don’t come with a complimentary fact-checker. It’s up to us to look into the media we consume. But there’s also a bright side: We can still post or tweet about factual information—we just need to give that post or tweet a once-over before sharing it with the planet. Because like any good journalist, we need to use reliable sources.