Tag: confirmation bias

Authentic Misinformation

Authentic Misinformation

Someone shared a fake story in my society group about veteran BBC correspondent Mark Tully heaping praises on Narendra Modi.

The article was forwarded with the link to an altnews.in story exposing it as a fake story but the member who forwarded it probably didn’t bother to check the link because the accompanying text was so full of Modi’s greatness. I gently pointed out that the link says it’s fake news.

As expected, another member of the group — a hardcore supporter of PM — retorted, “But it’s true, what is written”. I reminded her that Mark Tully didn’t say any of it, to which she said: “But the message has truth in it; we can also be sure that BBC will never ever tell the truth as far as India is concerned.” I said, “But using Tully’s name for credibility indicates something else”.

To which she said, “We Indians normally believe anything coming from abroad, so even to tell the truth it’s OK to use this method which is even said so by thiruvalluvar”. I didn’t get that last bit about thiruvalluvar but sensed the pointlessness of this conversation. I felt like I was trying to remove the blindfold of someone who has firmly shut her eyes inside. I closed my argument saying, “Well, not good for credibility. Truth doesn’t need any propaganda.” Her response: “But unfortunately in this era of false propaganda by vested interests, even truth has to fight its way to prove itself, that too when vested interests have enormous wealth to bribe the so called famous people to say what these people want to say for money. It’s very difficult for truth to even exist.”

Beware of the bias within

Regardless of clear evidence that contradicts them, we tend to believe as authentic stories that confirm our biases. This phenomenon—of being blind to anything that challenges one’s bias—plays out so frequently in our severely polarised world that it doesn’t spare anyone—not even those who call themselves “liberal”. Yes, it’s known to happen, albeit less frequently.

Now, I reckon those who run the IT Cell certainly don’t believe in the concept of karma because they continue to do to others what they don’t want others to do to them.

But what goes around comes around—and often with greater force and intensity. And that’s what is beginning to happen. Social media has been gamed for too long by the RW but the LW is now fast catching up resulting in an overload of misinformation that is threatening to drown all critical thinking.

A recent case in point: A few days ago when Netaji’s portrait was unveiled in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, someone suggested it is not Netaji but actor Prasenjit who played Netaji in his biopic. Senior journalists like Rajdeep Sardesai and Barkha Dutt as well as astute politicians like Mahua Moitra fell for the misinformation and tweeted it out. Soon, scores of their followers as well as other celebs jumped on the bandwagon.

Unfortunately, the traditional correction mechanisms for misinformation in public discourse have been corrupted. Once the bedrock of credibility, the ubiquitous newspaper has lost its teeth and now frequently peddles misinformation. News channels have, by and large, become mouthpieces of the government, a privilege once reserved only for DD.

Yes, there are websites dedicated to busting fake news: altnews, smhoaxslayer, snopes, factchecker etc. But for every fake news busting website, there are a dozen or more propaganda websites that shamelessly peddle outright lies and manipulated facts. The propaganda websites have it easy because they know how to exploit our cognitive biases. The message in my WhatsApp group I shared above is a good example.

Such stories are what I call “authentic misinformation” and they present a unique challenge: no matter how convincingly one disputes propaganda stories, it appears authentic to those who want to believe it.

Authentic misinformation is a challenge indeed

You see, most of us are far too invested in our bubbles to consider breaking out of it. We are comfortable and secure in our world-view and consider anyone with a different view as a threat. Because of this, any attempt to prove a contrary point mostly backfires and hardens the opposing point-of-view even further. Using rhetoric worsens the situation and we reach a deadlock.

No wonder our bubbles are only becoming more and more airtight. And opaque too, thanks to echo chambers created by social media who profit from our biases. So we can shout ourselves hoarse trying to get our point across to those in a different bubble but our voice isn’t really reaching them.

For example, Modi’s fans are in a bubble in which all is well with Modi and there is always a perfectly plausible reason for all that is going wrong under his government. Try as you may, the vast majority of this segment will not be able find any fault with Modi—because his image is now part of their personal identities and no one likes their carefully weaved identity to be threatened with logic or facts. The easier thing for the brain to do is reject any information that challenges this identity.

What’s the way out?

So what can we do to deal with this phenomenon of authentic misinformation?

I think if we care for and are committed to truth, we ourselves must steer clear of it. For that, we need to be alert and aware of our own biases at all times and resist the temptation to be so cynical of the other that we begin to resemble them.

Of course, we must continue bust fake news whenever we can but also know that it is not enough. I think we need to find ways to build bridges; head-on confrontation never helps because our purpose isn’t to defeat the opponent who is often a friend, a neighbour, a relative or a simply a fellow citizen. Instead of taking a confrontational approach, we need push them (and ourselves) to think clearly and become aware of biases and prejudices that prevents seeing things clearly.

Would love to hear your thoughts…