April 15, 2024

Investigating on your own is a good way to end up making mistakes.

The Internet has been a great help for the accessibility of information. There are very few barriers to consuming classical literature or detailed scientific analyzes or news catalogues. There’s also an exorbitant amount of junk information, of course, and a whole universe of people saying things they think will get people to click on links that will make them money.

While trust in American institutions has been declining for some time, it is not difficult to imagine how the economic incentives of the Internet contribute. There is a huge appetite for derogatory, counterintuitive or anti-institutional evaluations of the world around us. This is partly because the alleged scandals are interesting and partly because Americans like to see themselves as independent analysts of the world around us.

The result is that there is both a supply and demand for meaningless or attractively formulated errors. Americans who have little trust in the system can easily find something to reinforce their skepticism. They often do.

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This month, Josh Benton of Nieman Lab reported on research published last year that showed how people “doing their own research” on the Internet often led them to gain more trust in false information. The article, titled “Online searches to evaluate misinformation can increase its perceived veracity,” was written by researchers from the University of Central Florida, New York University and Stanford. His conclusions were simple.

“Although conventional wisdom suggests that searching online when evaluating misinformation would reduce belief in it, there is little empirical evidence to evaluate this claim,” the authors wrote. Instead, they continued: “We present consistent evidence that searching online to evaluate the veracity of fake news articles actually increases the likelihood of believing them.”

Later, they summarize the process: “When people search online for misinformation, they are more likely to be exposed to lower-quality information than when people search for true news” and “those who are exposed to low-quality information are more likely to be exposed to lower-quality information.” of believing that false or misleading news is true compared to that which is not.” I searched for information; see bad information; Accept bad information.

The mechanism is explored in depth, but in summary, false claims or other rumors often generate fewer hits on Google, meaning searchers are more likely to find unreliable information that aligns with their assumptions. (The article is dense; Benton’s summary is helpful.)

There’s probably another factor at play, one that wasn’t measured in the research: People who believe false claims often do so because those claims fit their broader ideology or philosophy. Like a parent facing accusations of misconduct by his child, these people would presumably be more likely to accept dubious information that supports their beliefs than information that corroborates the accusations. The study presented participants with news to evaluate without predisposition. In the real world, that usually doesn’t happen.

One of the ways in which the modern media environment has facilitated the spread of false information is that false information often takes on the veneer of reliable information. Sites like Gateway Pundit look like broad-brush news sites. The Gateway Pundit, despite its history of spreading nonsense, is often treated as legitimate by prominent people, so its claims are considered credible.

The same thing happens on cable television. Channels like One America News, which I described shortly after the 2020 election as a “pro-Trump video channel offered with a cable news-like aesthetic,” raised numerous unfounded claims before being banned from major systems. cable news. Its programming often seemed to be the equivalent of taking Alex Jones’ “Infowars” but setting it in a local television news studio. Doing your own research could lead you to seemingly reliable sources that are not.

A right-wing story about Michigan voter fraud had everything but evidence

Journalist Michael Hobbes recently commented on another emerging pattern, that one can “simply adopt the aesthetics of a fact check or a leak of a secret document and people will act as if you have blown the cover of a major scandal without evaluating it for themselves.” the underlying statement. .”

This has been instrumental in House Republicans’ effort to allege that President Biden was engaged in impeachable activities. House Oversight Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) has repeatedly leveled accusations against Biden that reflect the filing of long, detailed investigations but then collapse under scrutiny. His supporters, mostly a subset of Donald Trump supporters, say Biden acted inappropriately and are happy to accept the allegations as legitimate, while the conservative media largely shields them from discrediting him, for whatever benefit that may bring. he may have.

Why did so many Iowa caucus attendees indicate they thought Biden’s victory was illegitimate? Partly because of Trump’s defense of that idea, certainly, and partly because of the impermeability of the right-wing media universe. But many also mentioned doing their own research, seeking information on the topic that ended up reinforcing their beliefs.

The most extreme recent example of Americans’ recent willingness to accept meaningless claims is the QAnon movement. Most silenced since the January 6, 2021, riot at the US Capitol, QAnon supporters say a secret cabal controls the world, with media, entertainment and political elites conspiring, perhaps (some believe ) to traffic children and consume a secret chemical that children produce. However, many of the people I spoke to in 2018 and 2019 simply saw QAnon as an organizing concept for how Trump was fighting powerful and nefarious forces in his name.

I clearly remember standing outside a Trump rally in New Hampshire in 2019 and talking to a guy in a QAnon t-shirt. He was very cordial and matter-of-fact in his statements. And he suggested that he knew why I didn’t agree with his assumptions.

What I needed, he said, was to do some of my own research.

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