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In the Digital Age, when there is excessive usage of the internet and overexposure to information, it is almost a given that people come across all kinds of misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is false or inaccurate information that is spread as a fact, but the intent may not be to deceive others. Disinformation is false and inaccurate information that is spread with a deliberate intention to mislead and deceive others.

Both misinformation and disinformation have become quite common these days. Due to social media, it is very easy to share false information, without being aware of it, with a lot of people at the same time. Disinformation, however, becomes more dangerous, because it is often done deliberately to instigate hate and violence, spread stereotypical information, and malign individuals and social groups.

With being surrounded by too much information, it often becomes difficult to distinguish misinformation and disinformation from accurate information. Along with this, the human tendency to have cognitive biases does not allow critical evaluation of information, making people easily influenced by misinformation and disinformation. Cognitive bias refers to a deviation from rationality in making judgments.

Due to cognitive biases, people tend to make faulty judgments and incorrect decisions in everyday life situations. This includes being uncritical of any given information, which involves the inability of an in-depth evaluation of information and an inaccurate judgment of the accuracy of the information.      

Getting influenced by both misinformation and disinformation only has negative consequences. The cognitive biases make people get influenced by misinformation and disinformation quite easily, without even being aware that the information that they believe to be true is fabricated.  

One common cognitive bias, especially relevant in the context of misinformation and disinformation, is believing information to be true when exposed to it repeatedly. This is known as the illusory truth effect or the reiteration effect. When misinformation is shared by a number of people quickly, individuals get exposed to it repeatedly. This repeated exposure gives a sense of familiarity and increases processing fluency, that is, the ease with which information is processed. 

Repeated exposure giving a sense of familiarity is known as the repeated exposure effect or mere exposure effect. The repeated exposure effect tends to overpower rationality, making people believe false information to be true. This has been found even when people may be, initially, doubtful of the information. But when repeatedly exposed to the same information, that sense of doubt no longer exists. Specifically, regarding disinformation, false information is strategically shared repeatedly, through propaganda, leading people, on a large scale, to believe it to be true, and not question it. 

Repeatedly being exposed to the same information also makes it readily available in the mind. People have the tendency to use information that is readily available and easily accessible, in making judgments and decisions. This is known as the availability heuristic

Accordingly, any information that is readily available is believed to be true, to the extent that people do not feel the need to have a look at any alternate information. Consequently, when inaccurate information, both in terms of misinformation and disinformation, is accessed through general media, social media, or even casual conversations, people believe that and make judgments accordingly. 

For instance, if there is inaccurate information about a mental health issue that is being spread all over, people tend to believe it, as it is easily available to the mind. Further, if some false, negative information, to malign a social group, is deliberately spread continuously on news channels or social media, people tend to believe it, because it is readily available to the mind.

Apart from the illusory truth effect and the availability heuristic, when people are continuously exposed to false information, they experience what is known as the misinformation effect. The misinformation effect is the tendency to believe something that has not occurred. 

Research has demonstrated that memory, due to being reconstructive, can be highly inaccurate. Therefore, even when false information is presented to people, they tend to believe that it might be true. This happens because any kind of false information tends to distort memory, creating a sense of confusion, and making people believe it. 

Additionally, due to this distortion in memory, individuals find it difficult to differentiate between false and accurate information, because such information is repeatedly displayed through sources that are believed to be credible such as people in authoritative positions, news channels, social media, and even peers. For instance, continuous propagation of distorted history and representing events with twisted facts tend to create the misinformation effect, making people believe that it might have actually occurred. A large number of people end up getting easily influenced by misinformation or disinformation, because of the misinformation effect. 

People are also prone to believing misinformation and disinformation because of the truth bias. The truth bias or veracity bias is an inclination to believe any given information to be true. Thus, any information, even if it is inaccurate is believed to be true. This is mostly found in interpersonal communication and social interactions, in which people have an inclination to believe what the other person is telling them. 

Societal expectations of honesty and the general tendency to trust social interactions make people believe inaccurate information to be true. But, as it has been quite evident, there is a lot of dishonesty and untrustworthiness in the surroundings, and believing all information to be true can be misleading. It is due to the truth bias that many people become vulnerable to deception. This, often, distorts their belief systems and develops stereotyped thinking and prejudiced behavior.

Human beings, generally, have a tendency to be uncritical about any information. Due to this, whenever any false information is simply presented, there is generally a failure to critically assess that information. This tendency is called metacognitive myopia

Metacognitive myopia involves a limited self-awareness of cognitive processes, including an overestimation of knowledge and expertise. This makes people to be unaware of their reasoning and decision-making skills. This limited self-awareness makes them susceptible to the acceptance of misinformation and disinformation, making them firmly believe any information to be true.

In the current scenario, overexposure to information has made it difficult to differentiate between false and accurate information. Misinformation is spread quickly because people believe it to be true and feel like sharing that with others. Disinformation is strategically shared on a large scale, and people easily believe such information to be true, spreading false information everywhere. 

Moreover, cognitive biases make people susceptible to misinformation and disinformation, making them easily deceived. Propagandists and hate-mongers take complete advantage of this situation, leading to the development of a polarized society.

Saif Farooqi

A PhD in Psychology (from the University of Delhi). I have been blogging about psychological issues for more than ten years. I am extremely passionate about teaching psychology. I'm a writer, podcaster, and TEDx speaker. I also conduct workshops and awareness programs in schools and colleges. Currently, I'm also working as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India


Dr. Samina Bano said...

Well written Dr. Saif Farooqi. I feel this post will be helpful in spreading awareness of metacognitive myopia and preventing oneself from misinformation and being alert from the disinformation propogated.

Saif Farooqi said...

Thank you! Yes, an awareness of such cognitive biases will surely help in not being influenced by misinformation and disinformation, and will make people more critical about the information that they receive.