Nature Abhors a Vacuum, Misinformation Loves One

Why is misinformation winning the battle on the Internet? Consider Portland.

Posted Aug 31, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

Misinformation is winning the Internet wars. The truth is lost under a tidal wave of false and misleading information. I’m writing about a current case – the killing at protests in Portland.

I’m writing on Monday morning, after a killing on Saturday evening. For months there have been protests in Portland, mostly concerned with police violence under the general umbrella of Black Lives Matter. On Saturday, there was a counter-protest. The counter-protest was organized by right-wing people, many associated with white nationalist groups. Some of the interactions were peaceful (those didn’t make the news or social media). But violence occurred at several confrontations between protesters and counter-protesters during the day. Late in the evening, a person was shot and killed. You may have heard this news. It has appeared in almost every media outlet. The President was tweeting about it as well.

But details have been slow to emerge. The reports are that someone was shot and killed. At least one report identifies the person who was killed as associated with the right-wing white nationalists (The New York Times and other outlets noted that he was wearing a hat from one of these groups). You can find the time and location of the shooting. But that is about all the information released so far by officials in Portland. Here is a link to The New York Times summary of what is known about the shooting. I assume they will update it as more information becomes available.

Here’s what we don’t know at this time. There are no official reports identifying the victim. No reports concerning the person who shot the victim. No information about what led to the confrontation. No information about who else was at the scene. Little information about the aftermath. We have a vacuum. And misinformation is rushing to fill that vacuum.

Have you heard the old saying: a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes? By the way, the statement is actually an example of itself. The saying has often been attributed to Mark Twain. But he did not apparently write that. Instead, Jonathan Swift is more likely the genesis of that line (see a report on misattributed quotes).

The official accounts of the Portland shooting have been slow to emerge (still lacing up their shoes, I guess). And while the truth rests, misinformation is running around the world. The vacuum that nature abhors is being filled rapidly with misinformation. Social media is awash in stories about the Portland shooting. You can find the name of the victim. You can find information about the people he supposedly was with – who reportedly were violating parole. You can find a claim about a shooter. You can find stories about medics who tried to help the victim. I don’t know which, if any, of these stories will be supported by reliable information later. At least some of the information is being circulated by someone who has previously been blocked on social media accounts. I suspect that some of the false information reflects intentional disinformation campaigns.

The speed with which misinformation fills social media is a constant. The Internet runs at the speed of light.

And the way in which misinformation fills the vacuum is the same every time. Kate Starbird and her colleagues have investigated the spread of misinformation during crisis events. For example, Starbird (2017) noted that the stories shared during shooting and violent attacks are similar and repetitive across the alternative media environment. Generally, the suspect is not who the normal media blames. And the suspect is a representative of some evil cabal. The actual villainous organization changes, but the story stays the same. The suspicion of mainstream media is always part of these stories as well.

Frequently misinformation in these situations is part of deliberate disinformation campaigns. Disinformation campaigns include false information. But often the goal is to confuse the situation. To make so many claims that finding the truth becomes more difficult. In that case, the people can again fill the vacuum with whichever story they choose. They use this method to obscure the truth.

In the battle against misinformation, we have an incredibly important personal tool: Patience. Oh, this isn’t an easy-to-use tool. But we can slow down the spread of misinformation by tripping it up. That is, don’t be in a hurry to spread the latest bit of information about a crisis, especially when that information doesn’t come from a reliable source. We have probably all been unwitting contributors to the spread of misinformation. We see something that looks interesting, important, and urgent. We share it. Sometimes we share it, noting that we aren’t sure of the reliability. But every time we do this, we may speed the misinformation onward in its race against truth. Slow down. Wait. Let the truth catch up.

I know this is hard. It would certainly be useful if social media companies helped. My former student Maddy Jalbert and I have made the argument that social media companies need to take some responsibility as well (Hyman & Jalbert, 2017). They are often slow to shut down known misinformation and calls for violence. Since their platforms are the preferred ones for purveyors of disinformation campaigns, they need to work on shutting those down more quickly.

But even without the support of social media companies, we can all help the truth catch up. We need to slow the spread of rumors during times of crisis.

References

Hyman, I. E., Jr., Jalbert, M. C. (2017). Misinformation and worldviews in the post-truth information age: Commentary on Lewandowsky, Ecker, and Cook. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 6, 377-381.

Hyman, I. E., Jr., Jalbert, M. C. (2017). Misinformation and worldviews in the post-truth information age: Commentary on Lewandowsky, Ecker, and Cook. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 6, 377-381.