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WKYT Investigates | The cost of political misinformation

Lies can misinform our political beliefs and opinions. What’s the cost?
Published: Sep. 2, 2020 at 4:21 PM EDT
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Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in a five-part series targeting misinformation on social media: Why do we fall for it? What’s the truth behind the lies? And how can we figure out for ourselves what’s fact and what’s fiction?

Part III: How can political misinformation hurt our democracy?

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Whether you are watching or scrolling, it does not take long to find lies and distortion during a political campaign. The problem is that we do not always know it; it can be easy to fall for, and often times, experts say, we believe what we want to believe.

“I do think that this is just the way that we try to navigate the world the best that we can,” said Christia Spears Brown, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky. “The problem is, the world’s too complicated for that. And it ends up leading to flaws in our understanding.”

Professor Spears Brown studies stereotypes. She has found that we maintain them because we often seek out and remember information that confirms what we already believe.

“So what happens is they just continue to get reinforced,” she said. “They just get stronger. Because we’re forgetting, and we kind of weed out everything that might change our minds. That’s too complicated, we don’t want that. So we weed it out and don’t remember or change it to fit the stereotype, and so we just reinforce the ideas we already have, and they get harder and harder over time to change.”

The Internet and social media certainly do not help with that, as we get lodged in what is often called an “echo chamber.”

“They’re going to feed you more,” said Steve Hamrin, a tech expert and owner of Hartland Computer Repair. “They want you to consume as much of it as you can.”

The way many online algorithms work, the more you click on, the more you build up a reputation for clicking on certain things, Hamrin explained. Then you begin to see similar things pop up more and more.

“Then what happens with you, is you say, ‘See? See? This is what I think. Look! Look!’ Yes, here’s another message. All my messages say the same thing. They tell me the same wrong thing over and over again,’” Hamrin said.

Tech companies have begun fighting misinformation more visibly, by flagging posts or fact checking in some instances. But in this hyper-partisan age, even those steps have become political issues.

“The great philanthropist Bernard Baruch once said, ‘Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.’ That was popularized by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan,” said journalism professor and political columnist Al Cross. “It’s a phrase that we all need to remember.”

The spread of misinformation also takes advantage of doubt in legitimate news sources. It is why it can be hard for some to believe truth when they do not like it. But breaking the stereotypes and ideas we have formed is hard.

“We have to live together,” said Professor Spears Brown, “and so we have to figure out some kind of common conversation or some kind of commonalities across people, and those seem to be, because these things reinforce, we seem to be getting further and further apart and further and further entrenched in what we already believe.”

Psychologists say a lot of this goes on without us even realizing it, so the first step is to be aware of what you are taking in - make sure it is not just information with which you agree. Take campaign ads with a grain of salt. Research yourself.

Experts say political misinformation can be particularly dangerous because of the consequences to our democratic system of government.

“We need a society in which people freely share their beliefs and don’t demonize people who disagree with them, who are willing to accept contrasting views,” Cross said.

Otherwise, experts say, it is an easy way to get trapped in a web of distortion and misinformation, partly of our own making.

Check out the rest of WKYT Investigates: The Misinformation Pandemic.

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