Misinformation and trust

Misinformation and trust (Lisk Feng)
Credit: Lisk Feng

News: “Social media has facilitated the proliferation of false belief at an unprecedented scale.”


Humans are social learners. “We develop most of our beliefs from the testimony of trusted others”–parents, friends, relatives, clergy, politicians, work colleagues, etc.

And, sometimes, the ideas and information that they pass on to us are just plain wrong. But, we hear it from a friend, we believe it, we send it on to another friend, they trust us and so pass it on … and on and on. No one in the chain intends to mislead; I believe it because I trust you.

The trolls, the bots, the propagandists–we do their work for them. “Misinformation shared on social media … has fueled an epidemic of false beliefs” leading to a “profound public mistrust of basic societal institutions.” One clear example of this is “the largest measles outbreak in a generation.”

So, what can we do about this as a start?

  • Do not pass on social media tweets, posts, etc. just because you trust the source or especially because the source asks you to. Be skeptical of those that ask for retweets and shares.
  • Be as skeptical of “friends” on social media as you may be of proclamations from institutions–because it may not be your friend; it may be a bot, your friend’s account may have been hacked … or your friend may be passing along information that is incorrect.
  • And, again, how much do you really need to use social media? What are you using it for? Can you get any value you receive from social media in other ways? After all, humans survived millennia without it.

If the information is important, be skeptical, be smart, go to the original source (or as close to it as you can), understand the context of the information … don’t help the bots and the trolls.

Learn more: How misinformation spreads–and why we trust it (Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall, Scientific American, September 2019).

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