The Misinformation Effect

Words by Madieson (she/her), 25 WA 

Misinformation centralises on the spreading of incorrect information, either intentionally or unintentionally. When it comes to the current generation, we can see the rapid spread of misinformation on a variety of different issues.

From a psychological perspective, misinformation looks at how our memory of previous events in history can be easily manipulated to include incorrect or misleading perspectives. Our brains are malleable – they are so easily influenced and shaped and moulded to think a certain way. This explains how easily someone can influence another person, by simply introducing new information to them.

In the time of social media, more information than ever is constantly available. As more information gets spread – accurate or inaccurate – through social media, our memories continue to be shaped by this information. This shaping of memories is an ongoing and continual process.

A simple example of the misinformation effect is how our memory of the iconic line in Star Wars is “Luke, I am your father,” when in fact the line is, “No, I am your father.” In this scenario, the information that is incorrectly added to the quote adds context to the story. It could be argued that there is no real harm caused by this.

However, in the context of the current era and the increase in the spreading of false information, the majority of information that is being manipulated is causing more harm than good to a variety of different groups and individuals, especially young people.

An example of the dangers of misinformation and how it can cause harm to individuals is around medical treatments and cures for illness. At the beginning ofthe COVID-19 pandemic, there was a lot of information falsely spread about what can help prevent the onset of COVID-19 and what can help with the symptoms.

There was mention of a certain medication that is incredibly dangerous to be ingesting without medical assistance. One such medicine was Ivermectin – recommended by a variety of different social media influencers. Some of the potential impacts of ingesting Ivermectin include overdosing, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, and seizures – information left out by the people that spruiked it has a cure.

The spreading of misinformation happens when anecdotal evidence or emotion is used to back up claims instead of scientific evidence. Misinformation spreads fast in the era of social media, as these platforms are available at the fingertips of the user.

Linking back to the previously mentioned example; if we think about how many people still have a false memory about what is said in Star Wars, it is entirely possible that the same effect can be applied to the spreading of false medical information. To this day, many people still strongly believe that certain medications, such as Ivermectin, are a suitable way to treat COVID-19.

As we continue to expand our horizons on the social media front and share more information on these platforms, the spreading of inaccurate and dangerous information continues.

Another prime example is the spreading of false health information on TikTok. As young people continue to use the app to share life experiences and anecdotal advice, the spreading of false health information can have serious implications on young minds.

For instance, there was a TikTok recently circulating stating that oats are bad for your health. In a society where young people are constantly told what they should eat, look like, and be like – information that has no solid scientific backing such as this can be troubling. If a young person is eating oats for breakfast over not eating breakfast at all or only eating unhealthy cereal for breakfast – the oats are a far more viable and healthier alternative for them.

It’s as simple as seeing a tweet, TikTok, news article, or social media post and resharing for the information, correct or not, to continue to spread. This amplifies the effect when people back up a claim with only emotion or anecdotal evidence supporting them, instead of scientific fact.

Once an article is shared, the algorithms at play will now put that article in front of more viewers. The viewers that are shown that article will typically already hold views aligned with the information presented in the post. This will then create a confirmation bias, which affirms the individual’s view or belief.

It’s important to recognize the potential harm caused by misinformation, especially when it comes to issues that affect public health and safety. To combat the spreading of misinformation, there is a call for both social media platforms and individuals to take action.

Social media platforms can play a role in addressing misinformation by implementing screening processes to verify the accuracy of information, especially regarding scientific phenomena. They could also consider using AI to identify and ban users who consistently spread false and dangerous information. However, a portion of the change can come from individuals and the way we approach social media.

When we read news, and share posts, we need to be conscious of our own biases and how these are influenced by the media we are presented with and the way we consume the media.


Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio

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