Google has recently announced a $1 million grant to help fight misinformation in India. This could not have come at a better time. Misinformation has is a reality and bi-product of the Indian and global information age. It could be Kiran Bedi on Twitter claiming that the sun chants Om or WhatsApp forwards saying that Indira Gandhi entered JNU with force and made the leader of the student’s union, Sitaram Yechury, apologise and resign.
As someone who was subject to both these pieces of misinformation, I admit I ended up believing both of them at first, without a second thought. While both of those stories are relatively harmless, misinformation does have an unfortunate history of causing fatalities. For instance, in Tamil Nadu, a mob was guilty of mistaking a 65 year old woman for being a child trafficker. So when they saw her handing out chocolates to children, they put two and two together and proceeded to lynch the woman.
Because of instances like these, and because misinformation has the power to shape narrative, there is an urgent need to combat it. Countries have already begun to take notice and device measures. For instance, during times when ISIS was a greater force and Russia was emerging as an emerging misinformation threat, the US acknowledged that it was engaged in a war against misinformation.
To that end, the Obama administration appointed Richard Stengel, former editor of the TIME magazine, as the undersecretary of Public Diplomacy in the State Department to deal with the threat. Stengel later wrote a book called Information Wars, and acknowledged the limitations of the state in providing an effective counter to misinformation through factchecking.
When we try to tackle misinformation, we reason through it based on fundamentally incorrect assumptions. Typically, when we think of misinformation, we picture it to be like this pollutant that hits a population and spreads. Here we imagine that the population misinformation is affecting, is largely passive and homogenous. This theory does not take into account how people interact with the information that they receive or how their contexts impact it. It is a simple theory of communication, and does not appreciate the complexities within which the world operates. Amber Sinha elaborates on this in his book, The Networked Public.
Paul Lazarsfeld and Joseph Klapper debunked this theory of a passive population in the 1950’s. Their argument was that contexts matter. Mass communication and information combined do have the potential to reinforce beliefs, but that reinforcement largely depended on the perception, selective exposure and retention of information.
Lazarsfeld and Klapper’s work is a more sobering look at how misinformation spreads. Most importantly, it tells us why fact checking doesn’t work. People are not always passive consumers of information. There are multiple factors that significantly impact how information is consumed, such as perception, selective exposure, and confirmation bias. Two people can interpret the same piece of information differently. This is why we see that the media does not change beliefs and opinions, but instead, alost always ends up reinforcing them. So just because people are exposed to facts, does not mean that it is going to fix the problem.
I tried to test it myself. To the person who had sent me the story about Indira Gandhi making Sitaram Yechury apologise and resign, I forwarded a link and a screenshot that debunked the forward. To my complete lack of a surprise, they did not respond. Similarly, when Kiran Bedi was told that NASA did not confirm that the Sun sounded like Om, she responded by Tweeting, “We may agree or not agree. Both choices are 🙏”.
That makes sense. Remember the last time someone fact checked you, or just blurted with a statement that went against your worldview. No one likes cognitive dissonance. When our beliefs are questioned, we feel uneasy, our brain tries to reconcile the conflicting ideas to make sense of the world again. It is no fun having your belief system shaken.
This brings us back to square one. Misinformation is bad and has the potential to conjure divisive narratives and kill people. If factchecking does not work, how do we counter it? I do not know the answer to this, but would argue that the answer lies in patience and reason. We often think that leading with facts directly wins us an argument. In recent times, I have been guilty of that more often than I would like. But doing that just leads to cognitive dissonance, reconciliation of facts and beliefs and regression to older values.
We need to fundamentally rethink how we are to tackle misinformation. This is why Google’s grant comes at an opportune time. We are yet to see how it will contribute to combating misinformation. While fact-checking is good and should continue, it is not nearly enough to win the information wars.