Lies and propaganda. Fake news. Or what a character in one of my romance novels deliciously called “a lamentable tendency to habitual mendacity.”
Scholars simply call it “misinformation” and they are urgently studying the impact of its use in social media.
The Harvard Kennedy School of Government, through the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, launched an academic journal in January dedicated to publishing only studies about misinformation.
The amazing thing about this peer-reviewed journal, called Misinformation Review, is that its editors are turning around submissions in one month, instead of the usual two to four years. Also, instead of publishing once a quarter, this journal is cranking out editions. Its first issue was in January and three more were out by May, including one dedicated just to misinformation about COVID-19.
Its editors explain that because misinformation is so complex, and largely misunderstood, they feel the American public, and policy makers, need reliable and unbiased research about just how much misinformation is out there and its impact.
The emphasis is on real-world implications and many of the 17 articles and five commentaries already published include ideas of what the public or policy makers can do about specific issues.
Some are audacious: one essay supports a complete overhaul in how social media platforms handle posted information. Some suggest little tweaks: platforms should do more to promote accurate information.
Some are distressing: the more people believe erroneous posts on the pandemic, the less likely they are to comply with social distancing or to wear masks. Another found compliance rates early in the pandemic were directly related to the media people watched or read, in that fans of conservative media outlets were less likely to believe the pandemic was real.
Not all research related to misinformation is appearing in this one journal. Current Directions in Psychological Sciences has just published an article called “Aging in an Era of Fake News” about a study that looked at false Twitter feeds and who has been retweeting them.
The surprising finding was that it wasn’t the uneducated, or the poor, or conservatives, or liberals. It’s the Baby Boomers, Twitter users over age 60.
Why them? The researchers, Nadia Brashier and Daniel Schacter of Harvard’s psychology department, looked at several possible causes.
Are they starting to get senile? Not necessarily. The researchers found that a “cognitive deficit” in older adults is more often offset by their increased knowledge of the world, which makes it easier for them to spot lies.
The researchers did find that as people age, they tend to be more trusting and may struggle to detect deception.
They also point out that some older adults will sacrifice accuracy to make a point in telling a story or sharing a moral message with their young followers; so, to these adults, false information in a social media post is not that alarming.
But the main reason older adults are the most likely people to share fake social media posts is what the researchers called their “digital illiteracy.” Only 40 percent of older adults use social media today and only 5 percent were using it 10 years ago, they found. These digital newcomers often have a hard time identifying legitimate news sources and will accept as gospel anything that looks vaguely like news.
The researchers also cited cognitive studies that found older adults are particularly gullible when it comes to identifying doctored photographs.
If you’re thinking, oops, this could be me: the solution is to either verify posts before you share them or don’t share them at all.
It is clear the volume and frequency of misinformation thrown at people every day is overwhelming and confusing. This is compounded by all the social changes, health risks and economic worries we face these days.
Personally, I find comfort in knowing that experts are busy doing the research needed to help us identify and learn how to deal with all the fake posts in social media.
Carolyn S. Carlson, Ph.D., a communication professor, moved to Waynesville two years ago after retiring as director of the journalism program at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta.