Fanning the flames: why we need a new approach to the misinformation crisis

In today’s political landscape, online misinformation is treated like any other lie: someone tells a lie, the lie spreads, someone else corrects it, and we all move on. This is most evident in the proposed solutions to the crisis. Tech giants like Google and Youtube have launched efforts to filter search results by accuracy or annotate potentially false content; news outlets now have dedicated regular coverage to fact-checking; and lawmakers in both the US and UK have proposed legislation to designate social media sites as media companies rather than platforms, thereby making them liable for the spread of false information on their sites. None of these are terrible options, but none would completely solve the misinformation crisis because they’re aimed at countering specific lies. It’s just that the misinformation problem isn’t simply a crisis of specific lies – it’s a crisis of how misinformation hijacks the entire political conversation.

A post-2016 outpouring of research illuminates how it alters political discourse. People are more likely to believe the misinformation they see when it has an emotional impact, and are particularly likely to share it if it conforms to their prior political beliefs. Research suggests that even when people are later told that the information is false, they will likely experience a ‘lingering effect’ in which they continue to be influenced by the misinformation more than the correction. None of this comes as a huge surprise given the long history of partisan heuristics. The more interesting, and arguably more important, finding of this research is that misinformation has an agenda-setting power over people that aren’t even exposed to it. This is the narrative-change crisis in action – when the misinformation itself becomes the story, hijacking public discourse from critical issues.

This effect is sometimes called the ‘oxygen of publicity.’ It’s a concept frequently associated with terrorism, as attacks spark 24/7, emotionally-ridden media coverage that can produce an outsized level of harm by stoking fear and sociocultural divisions, even if the emotional reporting is understandable.  Misinformation campaigns, with their tendency towards the outrageous and divisive, use the same playbook. As misinformation gains traction, media and politicians are forced to react to and discuss the lie. This gives the misinformation a lot of free and easy coverage, and as the saying goes, any publicity is good publicity – at least when the motive is to cause chaos, as appears to be the main strategy of foreign disinformation campaigns. More troubling is the fact that it sucks up critical airtime from issues that really matter, and it’s extremely difficult to recover from that reactive position to give those issues the attention they deserve.

The narrative around migration is a key example of this effect. Twitter released a trove of over 9 million tweets from Russian state-operated troll accounts last month, and Demos wrote a report analysing over 83,000 that mentioned the UK. Though the accounts tweeted about various political issues, tweets that focused on Islam and mentioned the terror attacks between March and June of 2017 were retweeted 25 more times than other messages. These tweets appeared designed to stoke anti-Muslim sentiments by linking terror attacks to refugees and other migrants, falling in line with general patterns of anti-migrant rhetoric in the US and UK. Despite the infinitesimal risk of being involved in a terror attack and well-documented figures showing that migrants commit crime far less than other groups, mentions of migration, crime, and terrorism dominated most of the 2016 airwaves, helping make it a central political issue.

If cultural divisions can be artificially elevated by misinformation campaigns, the issues that we ignore in their place have the potential to be an even bigger threat. Climate change is a prime example. Stories about the impacts of climate change and proposed policy solutions saw a drastic reduction in 2016/17. When it was covered, it was mostly to talk about Trump’s wild claims about the Paris Agreement or doubting the phenomenon itself.  Whereas Obama made climate change mitigation a key part of his administration’s agenda, almost no major candidates in the 2018 midterm elections made it a campaign issue. More research here would illuminate an intuitive link: that policymakers and voters alike will not care as much if the story isn’t getting the coverage it deserves.

There have been laudable pieces from media outlets documenting this effect and trying to course-correct their coverage. Largely, however, the narrative-change crisis gets lost in the cycle of fake news and outrage as journalism grapples with an inconvenient truth: if misinformation itself is a problem, the everyday-outrage that it inspires is good for business. As has been rightly noted, mainstream media will occupy an even more important station amidst the oncoming wave of more sophisticated misinformation tools. But if it continues to be reactionary, rather than proactive, in shaping the narratives we tell, then not only do we submit to the objectives of those who propagate misinformation, we all lose by ignoring far more real and dangerous threats.