The demand for Misinformation

In his biography The Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela writes:

Although I read a variety of newspapers from around the country, newspapers are only a poor shadow of reality; their information is important to a freedom fighter not because it reveals the truth, but because it discloses the biases and perceptions of both those who produce the paper and those who read it.

The Long Walk to Freedom, page 177

Despite having no economic training, Mandela understood that newspapers are part of an information market that matches supply —newspapers— and demand —the readers—. The producers and consumers are in a symbiotic relationship, influencing each other. He understood how opinions and beliefs are formed both top-down and bottom-up, a skill that certainly played a major part in his political achievements.

Misunderstanding misinformation

Discussions about misinformation usually focus solely on the sources. The theory goes that if the authorities eliminate all deceitful sources of information and steer the public towards trusted outlets, people will only believe true facts and make better choices. According to this common theory the public has no agency over what it believes; therefor it must be protected from bad actors and wiping out false information will supposedly solve the problem.

This view is a poor reflection of reality, it only considers the supply side of insidious propaganda, and ignores the demand side. Do people deliberately seek out misinformation? And if yes what are the benefits?

When reality is unbearable, self-deception emerges as a defense mechanism. It is easier to believe soothing lies than confront painful realities. Seeking out facts and opinions that contradict one’s doctrine is unpleasant at best, and seriously distressing at worse. Reassuring falsehoods allow us to forgo our responsibilities in an intricate and paradoxical world. Instead of letting our model of the world collapse under the weigh of contradicting evidences, we gather pillars to bolster our shaky convictions.

The dishonest public

Modern societies view themselves are rational, and reasonable. Liberal democracies and autocracies alike assume their existence rests on hard facts and proven evidences.

Yet again and again, our modern rationalist dogmas clash with human nature. Humans aren’t rational, we are mimetic. We learn by imitating and mimicking, when we want to know what to do we observe our peers and copy their behavior. When we don’t know what to think we rely on the opinion of others, especially authority figures. Our actions aren’t predicated by reason, but by conformity with our peers’ behaviors and our desire to be accepted by those around us.

Sometimes, exceptional individuals can break through our mimetic convictions and discover the truth. These are exceptions, most of us aren’t truth seekers, we are good feeling maximizers.

Conspiracy theories are protective beliefs that shields our psyche from the pain of ambiguities. They offer justifications for our misfortunes, they absolve us of burdensome responsibilities. When we have a choice between hating ourselves and hating others, we almost always choose the latter, no matter how much we are to blame.

Consumers of wishful thinking

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York did an analysis of online misinformation using a demand and supply framework.

According to the report most supply side interventions don’t work. Here are the three salient findings from the report:

  1. The extent of unverified sharing can be insensitive to reductions in verification costs. Even when checking information is cheap and easy, we don’t do it.
  2. Supply interventions can increase the diffusion of misinformation. When information is suppressed, people wonder: Why are the authorities hiding this from me? Is the crazy conspiracy theorist actually spreading truth the powerful want to conceal? It’s the Streisand effect.
  3. Detection algorithms that remove news for users can backfire. Once information passes through the filters, it becomes more credible. False negative can give deceitful stories undue credibility. When a lie passes through the filter, it will be more readily accepted as true and be trusted.

Why is the demand for misinformation so persistent if people genuinely care about the truth?

The findings from this report are consistent with the theory that consumers of misinformation don’t really care about accuracy, they care about their own feelings and mental well being.

You can’t cheat an honest man

Is there anything we can do to mitigate our tendencies to believe and seek out soothing deceptions?

Here are a few strategies.

Limit your exposure to algorithmic information compilation. Don’t get your information from social networks. They may be good for entertainment, but they are a terrible source of information. It doesn’t matter if the network is centralized or distributed: Social networks are indoctrination machines, it’s their very nature.

Don’t rely solely on sources that are regarded as infallible or respectable by almost everyone, like Wikipedia. This amusing Tweet by Nassim Taleb sums this up beautifully:

The opposite of reading is not not reading, but reading something like the New Yorker

Be careful with sources of information that favors a certain narrative, or appeal to a demographic. It doesn’t matter if it’s political, spiritual, cultural, or professional. All inconvenient data will be weeded out in the name of harmony and unity. You don’t get popular by making your audience feel bad about themselves.

Video is the worst way to consume information, audio is better but still quite bad, reading is the best way to not get fooled.

Books are your best bet for good information. There’s less incentive to deceive and it’s harder to dupe the reader with long form writing. I believe that blogs are far superior to modern newspapers, but I love blogs so I may be spreading misinformation to make myself feel good.

Be skeptical, especially your own knowledge. Misinformation is here to stay.