Humans are social creatures and we love to share gossip, but we share what we like, not necessarily what is true. So are you living in a golden age of misinformation? If you are how would you know? This week Aleks Krotoski discusses Whispers on The Digital Human, a series that explores how connections via modern media are changing human behaviour.
It’s relevant to scientists because spreading information is what most scientists hope they do. Yet it seems that social networks are fertile ground for spreading misinformation. Why is that?
One answer suggested in the programme is that it’s down to how the scoring system works on social media. There are no obvious points to be won on Facebook or Twitter, but if you look below you’ll see sharing buttons. They’ll have numbers by them and even though they’re not really a score bigger numbers are better.
There’s also evidence that we choose our own realities, which may or may not coincide with the reality happening outside our skulls.
This is going to be a problem if your research finds a reality that people don’t like, whether that’s Anthropogenic Global Warming is real, or that GMOs are not inherently more of a safety hazard than other plants.
Another problem is that evidence proving a rumour false, might increase belief in the rumour. On the one hand this might be simple conspiracy theory – they wouldn’t try disproving it unless it was true. However, there’s also evidence that the way memory works reinforces rumour when you disprove it.
It’s easy to listen to the programme and look at the issues as something that affects other people. Did people really believe a tiger was roaming the streets of London in 2011? But the counterpoint is, what do you believe that is rumour, and do you really have time to fact check everything?