Hoaxes are a phenomenon as old as mankind. But, in the age of the Internet, with the dominance of social media, they can be multiplied on a grand scale.
Andrea Grignolio Corsini teaches the history of medicine and bioethics at the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan. He had broached the topic of hoaxes at Europe’s largest neuroscience conference, the FENS Forum:
“Fake news tends to create a dynamic of exclusion between different social groups…it consists of manipulated information with something real or of fabricated origin, created for political purposes.”
Grignolio says it’s been going on for a long time. He tells how the Donation of Constantine – a forged Roman imperial decree, by which Constantine the Great allegedly transferred authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the pope – was revealed as nothing more than a lie in 1440. Italian philosopher Lorenzo Valla showed that the text used terms, expressions and grammar that did not exist in the Latin used at the time the decree was allegedly written.
Since then, there have been manipulated texts against racial minorities, discoveries of life on the Moon (published by The sun in 1845) and dozens of other examples of fake news long before the emergence of the internet. The new digital version of this phenomenon has been part of key events, such as the 2016 US presidential election, the Brexit referendum and the COVID-19 pandemic.
A research article published last month in the journal Science explores the fierce battles that took place between misinformation and science regarding vaccines at the height of the pandemic. Following a study of 1,365 Facebook pages, researchers from George Washington University concluded that “the battle to get the best scientific advice from Facebook users was lost due to misinformation at the start of the pandemic, as some [parties] acted as dominant sources of guidance, while others were primarily recipients. When vaccine acceptance became critical, many parents — who were responsible for the health decisions of their young children and elderly relatives — had already reached out to anti-vaccine communities on social media,” says Lucia Illari, co – author of the article. .
Another recent study conducted by the Communication Department of the Carlos III University of Madrid analyzed whether students aged 11 to 16 are able to distinguish a hoax from real information:
“58.8% of students [believed] a false headline about COVID, while 51.8% considered a headline containing a lie about immigration to be true,” explains Eva Herrero, one of the authors of the study. The research also indicates that the majority of adolescents surveyed get their news via social networks (55.5%), television (29.1%) and their family and friends groups (7.9%)… well ahead of online newspapers (6.5%) or radio (1%).
This last survey is very relevant. According to Grignolio, the vast new dimension of hoaxes is due to “a new social media ecosystem”, where lies are generated by groups of like-minded users. According to him, the key elements of a hoax broadcast virtually are “novelty or surprise” in its approach, the generation of “moral disgust”, polarization – which helps to reinforce the group feeling – and the appeal to emotions. .
These elements then reach the brain, where areas linked to dopamine – which regulates emotion – and glutamate – the main excitatory neurotransmitter – are activated, explains Maria Antonieta de Luca, professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Cagliary, in Italy. Once satisfaction-related brain activity is generated, consequences occur.
Ciara Greene, director of the Attention & Memory Laboratory at University College Dublin, explains how one of the main effects of misinformation is the formation of false memories:
“When people see fabricated news stories – or even doctored photos of events that never happened – they may not only come to believe that those events did do indeed occur…they can also form a detailed memory of the actual experience of those events. This effect is more likely if the content of the crafted material conforms to your biases.
“Memories,” she explains, “are stored and distributed throughout the brain. Every time we remember something, we actually reconstruct that memory. [Memories] are like Lego blocks.
Research from the University of Texas has shown that sharing news stories with friends and followers on social media can trick people into thinking you know more about a topic than you actually do. Thus, false memory is exacerbated by the misperception of knowledge.
“When people feel better informed, they are more likely to make riskier decisions,” warns Adrian Ward, who participated in the research. Susan M. Broniarczyk – lead author of the New Articles article – adds: “If people feel better informed about a topic, they also feel they may not need to read or ‘learn additional information about it.’
Is there a solution to all of this? A group of researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Bristol, in collaboration with Jigsaw – a unit within Google – think so, especially after conducting an experiment called “Inoculation Science”. The project involves the creation of 90-second clips that familiarize viewers with manipulation techniques, so they can better identify lies regardless of the subject matter.
Sander van der Linden, one of the Cambridge researchers, says:[This project] provides the necessary proof that psychological inoculation can easily be extended to hundreds of millions of users worldwide. Almost like a vaccine!
Videos have improved the ability of people, from all walks of life, to spot misinformation. They also improved decision-making on whether or not to share harmful content.
“The inoculation effect was consistent between liberals and conservatives. It worked for people with different levels of education and different personality types. It’s the basis of a general inoculation campaign against misinformation adds Jon Roozenbeek, lead author of the Cambridge research.
Google has announced that Jigsaw will launch a vaccination campaign on various social media platforms in Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, to preemptively stop emerging misinformation about Ukrainian refugees. The campaign is designed to build resilience against harmful anti-refugee narratives, in partnership with local NGOs, fact checkers, academics and disinformation experts.
The team argues that the inoculation method may be more effective than checking every lie after it’s spread. “Propaganda and lies are almost always created from the same pattern…fact checkers can only refute a fraction of the lies circulating online. We need to teach people to recognize patterns of misinformation, so they understand when they are being misled,” says Stephan Lewandowsky from the University of Bristol.
Researchers believe that the benefits of “vaccines” against misinformation would be greater if they were integrated across all social media platforms. The estimated cost for each view is only 0.05 cents.