How to Avoid Falling Victim to Fake News

Cailin O'Connor on the spread of disinformation.

Posted May 14, 2019

This is the second in a series of interviews on “Science and Philosophy" featuring influential scientists and philosophers of science. Click here for part 1 on the rise of fake news.

Cailin O'Connor
Source: Twitter

Cailin O'Connor is a philosopher of biology and behavioral sciences, philosopher of science, and evolutionary game theorist. She is Associate Professor in the Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science, and a member of the Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Science at UC Irvine.

Walter Veit: How can we avoid falling victim to false beliefs?

Cailin O'Connor: To some degree this is unavoidable. False beliefs are part of the human condition. It is sometimes very hard to figure out the truth given the nature of evidence. And given the way humans spread knowledge socially, it is easy to pick up falsehoods from peers. (I, for example, went for a long time believing that we all eat several spiders a year while sleeping.)

There are so many ways to do better vis a vis false beliefs. I recently wrote a short piece with Jim Weatherall giving tips to avoid online misinformation. For instance, consider the source, not the sharer when it comes to news. We tend to use heuristics to decide which peers to trust. While these can be more or less helpful, most peers will sometimes be fallible. On the other hand, news sources that carefully fact check their claims are generally reliable. Another tip we give is to beware surprising scientific findings. Studies that do not replicate are often more widely reported on and more widely shared than those that do, presumably because their findings are more surprising or novel—and false. Look for journalism that covers a wide range of studies, rather than a single one. Single studies can be misleading due to the probabilistic nature of evidence. A survey of a whole, developed literature is more likely to point in the right direction.

Walter Veit: How can we combat the anti-vax movement, Russian hacker groups, and big interest groups spreading false and dangerous ideas?

Cailin O'Connor: We should expect misinformation and disinformation on the internet to adapt quickly and flexibly in response to our attempts to combat it. This means that there aren't likely to be good solutions we can set and forget. Instead, we should be treating this as an ongoing conflict. The government and relevant social media groups need to hire full-time researchers and task forces to protect public belief. And we should also get creative about using the adaptive talents of broader social media users in hunting down and reporting disinformation attempts.

When it comes to false beliefs that are already entrenched, like anti-vaxxing beliefs, in many cases just sharing more evidence does not convince others to change. Anti-vaxxers, for instance, are often resistant to good information from the medical establishment because they do not trust doctors. But they might trust information coming from someone whom they identify with. In finding spokespeople to rehabilitate anti-vaxxing communities, we should be sensitive to the identities of these communities and the ways their members ground trust.

Stay tuned for part 3!

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