Why smart people believe coronavirus myths – BBC Future – By David Robson – Apr 2020
This shows that intelligence alone doesn’t provide immunity from hoax messaging, and reminds me not to get lazy and just follow my “hunches”.
The BBC’s Reality Check team is also checking popular coronavirus claims, and the World Health Organization is keeping a myth-busting page regularly updated too.
I find it sad that it’s come to this: a global science-based agency having to use precious time and energy defending its actions against myths that can be dispelled so easily.
One poll by YouGov and the Economist in March 2020 found 13% of Americans believed the Covid-19 crisis was a hoax, for example, while a whopping 49% believed the epidemic might be man-made.
And while you might hope that greater brainpower or education would help us to tell fact from fiction, it is easy to find examples of many educated people falling for this false information.
Part of the problem arises from the nature of the messages themselves.
We are bombarded with information all day, every day, and we therefore often rely on our intuition to decide whether something is accurate
purveyors of fake news can make their message feel “truthy” through a few simple tricks, which discourages us from applying our critical thinking skills – such as checking the veracity of its source
Eryn Newman at Australian National University, for instance, has shown that the simple presence of an image alongside a statement increases our trust in its accuracy – even if it is only tangentially related to the claim.
A generic image of a virus accompanying some claim about a new treatment, say, may offer no proof of the statement itself, but it helps us visualise the general scenario. We take that “processing fluency” as a sign that the claim is true.
For similar reasons, misinformation will include descriptive language or vivid personal stories. It will also feature just enough familiar facts or figures – such as mentioning the name of a recognised medical body – to make the lie within feel convincing, allowing it to tether itself to our previous knowledge.
Even the simple repetition of a statement – whether the same text, or over multiple messages – can increase the “truthiness” by increasing feelings of familiarity, which we mistake for factual accuracy.
So, the more often we see something in our news feed, the more likely we are to think that it’s true – even if we were originally sceptical
Sharing before thinking
These tricks have long been known by propagandists and peddlers of misinformation, but today’s social media may exaggerate our gullible tendencies. Recent evidence shows that many people reflexively share content without even thinking about its accuracy.
Perhaps their brains were engaged in wondering whether a statement would get likes and retweets rather than considering its accuracy. “Social media doesn’t incentivise truth,” Pennycook says. “What it incentivises is engagement.”
Classic psychological research shows that some people are naturally better at overriding their reflexive responses than others.
Author: David Robson is the author of The Intelligence Trap, which examines why smart people act foolishly and the ways we can all make wiser decisions. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.
As an award-winning science site, BBC Future is committed to bringing you evidence-based analysis and myth-busting stories around the new coronavirus. You can read more of our Covid-19 coverage here.