More About Misinformation, Disinformation, and Conspiracy Theories

These subjects aren’t going away, because so many people are as gullible as ever — understood as inevitable human nature. This may imply a cap on the potential of the human race, in terms of its ability to engage with reality to ensure its survival against existential threats. Items from OnlySky, BigThink (Lee McIntyre), and Scientific Mindset.

OnlySky, M.L. Clark, 18 Aug 2023: Meet the Fab Five of misleading information, subtitled “On misinformation, disinformation, malinformation, truthiness, and just-so stories”


Error is an inevitable part of information-sharing. But when we disseminate error, whether through misinformation or with ill-intent, we risk damaging our discourse. Here’s what to look out for in false forms, and how to defend against them.


Big Think, Kevin Dickson interviewing Lee McIntyre, 5 Sep 2023: Disarming disinformation: How to understand and counter the “post-truth playbook”, subtitled “Philosopher Lee McIntyre discusses the dangers of disinformation, how such falsehoods spread, and what we can do about it.”

Key Takeaways
• Misinformation is a mistake. Disinformation is a lie told to cover the truth and spread hate. • Belief in disinformation is often less about facts and more about tribalism and community. • To counter disinformation, we can’t give into cynicism or helplessness; we must stay engaged through healthy skepticism.

The previous piece at OnlySky made some similar points, but there are lots of good passages to quote in this one. McIntyre has a new book out, On Disinformation: How to Fight for Truth and Protect Democracy.

McIntyre: If I had five minutes with a microphone that could reach everyone in the world, that is the distinction I would draw. It’s that important.

Misinformation is a mistake or an accident. It’s when somebody says something that isn’t true, and they believe it is, but it just happens to be false. If you show them the evidence, maybe they would see where they were wrong and change their mind.

Disinformation is a lie. It is false information that is intentionally false and shared by someone who knows it is false. And they do it with a purpose. They do it to deceive others into thinking the falsehood is true and to distrust anyone who doesn’t believe that falsehood. So, disinformation can lead not only to false beliefs but also to hate for the other side.

With a long aside about how the cigarette companies staged an aggressive campaign, beginning in the 1950s, to deny the scientific findings that smoking caused lung cancer. Why? Because they wanted to make lots of money. Then how politicians, and people, have always lied, but today there’s amplification of disinformation via websites and Twitter.

You sometimes hear science deniers say, “What about this? What about that and this other thing?” By the time you give them the facts, they have already moved on to something else. It takes so much longer to debunk something than it does for a falsehood to spread. It’s their way of slowing down the other side.

It’s a technique that dates back to [Lenin’s] Cheka: the firehose of falsehood. The disinformer doesn’t give one falsehood. He gives 20, even ones that contradict the others. That way, people have to go, “Whoa, I’m going to have to really sit down and think about that.” Meanwhile, he’s still out spreading falsehoods and evading accountability.

This is the familiar Gish Gallop. (Mentioned several times recently.)

Key point:

Kevin: That connects to another quality of disinformation you mention in your book: When people reach their conclusions without facts, facts won’t change their mind. It’s more about community and values.

McIntyre: Yeah. Disbelief can be a strong bond builder between people. You want to be with your tribe, the people who believe what you believe.

With more about amplifiers and believers, and “bothsidesism.”

McIntyre: The believers are victims. Usually, they’re people who are being taken advantage of. Go back to the cigarette example. The people who believed the tobacco companies were the victims. They were the ones who continued to smoke thinking there was a scientific debate, and they died.

The same can be said for Covid-deniers, of course. A key point, about trust:

People sometimes wonder why they can’t convince somebody who disagrees with them with facts. I think one answer is that it’s not about facts. It’s about trust. If you don’t trust the person who’s sharing the facts, then you aren’t going to believe what they say.

With a discussion about how the idea that there were microchips in the Covid vaccines was originally a product of a Russian troll farm, and was exposed, but still many people believe it, without knowing it was deliberate disinformation. Some people will believe anything, and the trolls know this.

Final quote:

So, the wrong way to be skeptical is to not believe anything anybody says. The right way to be skeptical is to think, why does that person want me to believe this? Sometimes, the answer will be because it’s true. They are scientists, they’ve studied it, and they’ve got the evidence. But sometimes, they want you to not look very hard.

The familiar example of this kind of skeptical thinking is: Follow the Money.


Finally for today, here’s an item linked by one of my Facebook friends (a NASA scientist, so I’ll trust the source even though I’ve never seen it before, and still relevant though being two years old). Do we still need to discuss the motivations of conspiracy theorists? Maybe we do. This is succinct, though I’m pretty sure it makes points I’ve made before.

Scientific Mindset, Antony Javaid with David Hundsness, 4 Dec 2021: Psychologist Lists 4 Reasons Why People Fall For Conspiracy Theories: “but it’s ego that actually does the heavy lifting.”

Oddly the post is a set of images from a video. So I’ll type:

One, is when there’s a lack of information, a conspiracy theory fills in that missing gap of knowledge.

Two, is when something causes anxiety, a conspiracy theory helps you predict where that threat is coming from, so it doesn’t feel so random.

Three, is wanting to follow your in-group. So if your political party or whatever believes a conspiracy, then you are more likely to believe it.

And the fourth reason is ego. People believe conspiracy theories believe they are in a special group of independent thinkers who know the truth. They think they have a superior knowledge while the majority of people are just sheep who are foolishly gullible and easily manipulated…

I’ve long thought the third point here is the key, especially for people living in small towns, where everyone knows each other, and it’s dangerous to think independently, contrary to the conventional wisdom of the neighborhood.

At the same time… truth about reality doesn’t matter to most people.

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