If you’re looking for solid information on COVID-19, the Internet is not always your best bet—equal parts encyclopedia and junkyard, solid science on the one hand and rubbish, rumors and fabulism on the other. Distinguishing between the two is not always easy, and with so much of the time we spend online devoted either to sharing links or reading ones that have been shared with us, not only does the junk get believed, it also gets widely disseminated, creating a ripple effect of falsehoods that can misinform people and even endanger lives.
“At its worst, misinformation of this sort may cause people to turn to ineffective (and potentially harmful) remedies,” write the authors of a new paper in Psychological Science, “as well as to overreact (hoarding goods) or, more dangerously, to underreact (engaging in risky behavior and inadvertently spreading the virus).”
It’s well-nigh impossible to keep the Internet entirely free of such trash, but in theory it ought not be quite as hard to confine it to the fever swamps where it originates and prevent it from spreading. The new study explores not only why people believe Internet falsehoods, but how to help them become more discerning and less reckless about what they share.
One of the leading reasons misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic gains traction is that it’s a topic that scares the daylights out of us. The more emotional valence something we read online has, the likelier we are to pass it on—either to share the joy if it’s something good or unburden ourselves if it’s bad.
“Our research has shown that emotion makes people less discerning,” says David Rand, associate professor at the MIT School of Management and a co-author of the new study. “When it comes to COVID-19, people who are closer to the epicenter of the disease are likelier to share information online, whether it’s true or false.”
That’s in keeping with earlier research out of MIT, published in 2018 showing that fake news spreads faster on Twitter than does the truth. The reason, the researchers in that study wrote, was that the lies “were more novel than true news …[eliciting] fear, disgust and surprise in replies,” just the things that provide the zing to sharing in the first place.
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