Information Voids for Vacuous Intellects

January 18, 2024

green-dino_thumb_thumb_thumbThis essay is the work of a dumb dinobaby. No smart software required.

In countries around the world, 2024 is a critical election year, and the problem of online mis- and disinformation is worse than ever. Nature emphasizes the seriousness of the issue as it describes “How Online Misinformation Exploits ‘Information Voids’—and What to Do About It.” Apparently we humans are so bad at considering the source that advising us to do our own research just makes the situation worse. Citing a recent Nature study, the article states:

“According to the ‘illusory truth effect’, people perceive something to be true the more they are exposed to it, regardless of its veracity. This phenomenon pre-dates the digital age and now manifests itself through search engines and social media. In their recent study, Kevin Aslett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, and his colleagues found that people who used Google Search to evaluate the accuracy of news stories — stories that the authors but not the participants knew to be inaccurate — ended up trusting those stories more. This is because their attempts to search for such news made them more likely to be shown sources that corroborated an inaccurate story.”

Doesn’t Google bear some responsibility for this phenomenon? Apparently the company believes it is already doing enough by deprioritizing unsubstantiated news, posting content warnings, and including its “about this result” tab. But it is all too easy to wander right past those measures into a “data void,” a virtual space full of specious content. The first impulse when confronted with questionable information is to copy the claim and paste it straight into a search bar. But that is the worst approach. We learn:

“When [participants] entered terms used in inaccurate news stories, such as ‘engineered famine’, to get information, they were more likely to find sources uncritically reporting an engineered famine. The results also held when participants used search terms to describe other unsubstantiated claims about SARS-CoV-2: for example, that it rarely spreads between asymptomatic people, or that it surges among people even after they are vaccinated. Clearly, copying terms from inaccurate news stories into a search engine reinforces misinformation, making it a poor method for verifying accuracy.”

But what to do instead? The article notes Google steadfastly refuses to moderate content, as social media platforms do, preferring to rely on its (opaque) automated methods. Aslett and company suggest inserting human judgement into the process could help, but apparently that is too old fashioned for Google. Could educating people on better research methods help? Sure, if they would only take the time to apply them. We are left with this conclusion: instead of researching claims from untrustworthy sources, one should just ignore them. But that brings us full circle: one must be willing and able to discern trustworthy from untrustworthy sources. Is that too much to ask?

Cynthia Murrell, January 18, 2024


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