Misinformation is defined as the spreading of false information by those who believe it to be true while disinformation is defined as the spreading of false information by those who know it to be false. Both concepts, timeless in practice, have disastrous consequences if believed by significant numbers of people within a society. Misinformation and the spread of conspiracy theories have significantly harmed the United States over the past year. COVID-19 misinformation has contributed to the rising global death toll, while election misinformation incited the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
In a panel discussion titled, “The Power of Misinformation,” Community Outreach and Common Cause CT hosted three distinguished speakers to share their expertise on the implications of misinformation in our current world. The panel included Adam Enders, assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisville, Ugochukwu Etudo, assistant professor of operations and information management at the UConn School of Business, and Sherry Pagato, professor of allied health sciences and director of the UConn Center for mHealth & Social Media.
“The most important thing to understand about conspiracy theories,” Enders said. “Is that it’s not just crazy ideas from some small number of tin foil hatted people in their parents’ basement. Conspiracy beliefs originate out of the human condition; motivations that all of us have: political motivations, social motivations and psychological mechanisms that are innate.”
While Enders believes that conspiracy theories have always been a part of human society, the greater attention toward misinformation in the past year could be attributed to the pandemic and extreme political polarization, with the feelings of fear and powerlessness forcing many to turn to alternative ideas as sources of comfort.
Pagato, who spoke specifically to the health side of misinformation, explained that need for caution when labeling something as a conspiracy theory, as it may stem from a legitimate concern or question that should be addressed to the general public.
“Given it is a new vaccine there is a healthy amount of hesitancy that we could expect,” Pagato said. “So it is not irrational to have questions and so we should also create a space for people to get their questions answered instead of just dismiss it all as, ‘Oh, you’re a conspiracy theorist,’ or ‘You’re an anti-vaxxer.’ So it’s not as black and white as that.”
Etudo, who focused on the technological aspect of misinformation, explained the role of social media in the spread of disinformation, as social media makes the spread of information both true and false, more democratic, allowing all people, including the misinformed, to spread false claims to the masses.
“We should never underestimate,” Etudo said. “The role that technology has played in bringing bad actors together or selectively injecting information into people’s information ecosystems.”
The panel noted that social media usage has increased tremendously since the beginning of the pandemic, with every member of the U.S. Congress having some presence on at least one of the major social media platforms and therefore able to spread information of their choice to their supporters. “Fake news” travels at a faster rate than the truth, so this can be difficult to combat, especially when de-platforming may not hinder the spread of disinformation, but rather send the perpetrators to a new and separate space.
While there may be no clear solution to combat the plague of misinformation in the world, Enders reminded the audience that this is nothing new, especially when looking at previous pandemics and the relationship between the government and the media.
“[In 1918] The whole term ‘Spanish Flu’ comes from Spain being the only country that was actually reporting on the pandemic at the time,” Enders said. “They weren’t being silenced by their government because they weren’t in World War I. Maybe it’s disheartening that we haven’t gotten a lot better over time, but it seems to me like the same old story.”