We don’t want facts, we want to fit in

4 head shapes filled with phrases with red background
(Shriya Jayanthi | Daily Trojan)

I wouldn’t be alone in confessing that I rely on Twitter, in part, to keep me current on pop culture and the latest news. In prefinals times such as these when I only leave my apartment to make necessary trips to Dulce and back, Twitter props up the rock I would otherwise live under. However, despite my well-intended conviction that humans are righteous, truth-seeking creatures capable of differentiating truth and misinformation, I know all too well that we’re simply not wired that way.

Combating misinformation is a crucial step in preserving the integrity of our media, but we must do so with an understanding of how it occurs and compassion for those who disseminate it.

Misinformation as old as human communication itself, dates back to two kajillion years ago when Cronk deceptively told Torg there was a lion by the stream and Torg told, well, everyone. In more recent times, misinformation has accrued the power to sway political processes and cause serious harm. You may recall 2016’s Pizzagate, a false conspiracy theory that led to a shooting at a D.C. pizzeria. More recently, misinformation surrounding coronavirus included the mischaracterization of its severity, promotion of false treatment measures and undue blame for its spread on members of the AAPI community who faced an increase in racialized violence in 2020. 

The everything, all-the-time, all-at-once-nature of social media acts as a Petri dish for propagating a culture of widespread misinformation, so news spreads quicker than ever regardless of whether it’s true. In fact, an MIT study found that on Twitter false news stories are 70% more likely to be retweeted than true stories.

For the record, there’s an important distinction between misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is falsehood spread unintentionally, retweeting something under the assumption that it’s true when it isn’t. Disinformation is the deliberate, malicious production and dissemination of false information for the purposes of fulfilling a personal or political agenda. 

I have no empathy for disinformation spreaders. Disguising false news as truth and real news as fake compromises our democratic institutions and stifles a free press. 

There are two main reasons why misinformation spreads more rapidly than truth. 

First, people love new things. We love the novelty of a juicy new fact that no one has seen before. As such, news publications jump to be the first to report on fresh stories. The pressure to publish something original and attention-grabbing pushes many publications — and even more Twitter accounts — to publish news without ensuring their legitimacy. 

Second, pissing people off is a good way to go viral. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that “anger is a high-arousal emotion, which drives people to take action.” When people are fired up, they are more likely to repost, retweet or regurgitate. Anger as a motivator could explain how movements like #StopTheSteal gained traction as hundreds of thousands of angry voters tried to reverse an election their news sources told them had been rigged.

While we can be quick to point fingers at who is most responsible for spreading misinformation, consider the already prevalent issue of political tribalism. The crusade against misinformation has made a bad situation worse by deepening the political divide and breeding hostility across ideological lines. It’s easier to admit someone else, “the enemy,” is responsible for disseminating misinformation, but the truth is that all of us are complicit in sustaining the chokehold misinformation has on our political and social processes.

At the root of our culpability for spreading misinformation lies the desire for group identity. People just want to belong — it’s what social scientists call “in-grouping,” the idea that group identity creates a sense of belonging and superiority. While in-grouping doesn’t account for all misinformation, our tendency to view the world from an “us” versus “them” perspective causes us to view information as either affirming or challenging our existing beliefs. We’re drawn to information that brings us comfort, and we resist information that enrages us, but comforting information isn’t necessarily truthful information.

We don’t necessarily want facts, but we definitely want to belong. For every well-informed media consumer who’s savvy to the influences of commercialism and the nuances of sensationalism, there’s another person falling down one of many dark rabbit holes. In those cases, condescension won’t help and neither will another online screaming match. The vast majority of our friends, relatives, and fellow internet neighbors aren’t experts in sussing out deceptive data or discerning the quiet power of the algorithm. Approaching misinformation with as much compassion and humanity as possible might be what prevents its most violent and tragic consequences.

Only once more people realize the motivations behind spreading misinformation are quite relatable will we be in the right collective mindset to combat it effectively. After all, who doesn’t want to belong?