Disinformation: the bad stuff is always easier to believe

Disinformation. It’s easy to believe and hard to ignore. More and more we are beginning to understand how much mis/disinformation leads to socioeconomic costs and how it impacts scientific integrity. Here are a few sources/links that (I hope) helps us continue the dialogue:

1) A link to the study we published in February 2020. It is entitled The Monetization of Disinformation: the case of GMOs and was published in a special issue of the European Management Journal on The Dark Side of Social Media. The journal article but provides evidence and understanding of how misinformation impacts science and societies. We use GMOs as a case study, but this could (generally) apply to any number of issues (from farm to fork and beyond (public health issues)).

  • Summary:
    • We analyzed a dataset of 94,993 unique online articles (2009-2019) for the evaluation of various tactics that contribute to the evolving GMO narrative. Preliminary results suggest that a small group of alternative health and pro-conspiracy sites received more totals engagements on social media than sites commonly regarded as media outlets on the topic of GMOs. Other externalities observed include continued social and political controversy that surround the GMO topic, events (demonstrations, legislative initiatives, ballots, etc) as well as the growth of additional product and marketing approaches such as “non-GMO” verification.

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  • Figure: Total shares of GMO online articles over time (2009-2019) 

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  • Figure: Key Events and Online Engagement (2009-2019) 
    • Social media has revolutionized how we connect as human beings and is a vehicle for sharing false or deceptive information (disinformation).
    • Disinformation is firmly planted in the ‘attention economy’, a competitive economy where human attention is a scarce resource.
    • Disinformation is used by vendors to attract readership with strategies to monetize it.
    • Disinformation influences public opinion and risk perceptions and this, in turn, results in policies developed based on disinformation rather than scientific evidence.
    • Disinformation has been used to problematize science, impeding innovation and affecting social license to operate across a number of sectors (science, farming and food production, etc).
  • Importance of the study
    • Distortion of science inappropriately raises the risk profile of good technologies which results in delays in getting socially vital products to the market (e.g., virus resistant cassava), or shelved or unrealized innovations (e.g., New Leaf potato, Calgene tomato), and even the loss of important research through vandalization of field trials.

2) This blog post from LinkedIn The bad stuff is always easier to believe: disinformation, modern ag, and societies provides useful background and links.

Profiting-from-Disinformation-The-Case-of-Genetically-Modified-Organisms-Bayer-Crop-Science

3) Don’t want to read the whole study? I get it and I don’t blame you! If you are a podcast lover and love the audio experience like I do, here is a SciPod summary of the paper which provides a 9 minute easy-listening overview of the paper. Profiting from Disinformation: The Case of Genetically Modified Organisms.

4) Additionally, check out this letter I wrote for Purdue University’s Center for Food and Agricultural Business on disinformation and advocacy: Dis/misinformation: difficult to detect and hard to ignore.

5) Here are some @CamiDRyan Twitter threads on the topic:

6) Communicating Ag in an Attention Economy, Talking Biotech Podcast with Kevin Folta.

If you have any questions or comments, please reach out!

Other resources:

Carley, K. et al. (2020). Many Twitter Accounts Spreading COVID Falsehoods.

Caulfield, T. (2020). Twitter thread on Misinformation (includes infographics).

Evanega, S., Lynas, M., Adams, J., Smolenyak, K., & Insights, C. G. (2020). Coronavirus misinformation: quantifying sources and themes in the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’.

Institute for Strategy Dialogue (ISD) (2020). Anatomy of a Disinformation Empire: Investigating Natural News. Report.

Johnson, N. F., Velásquez, N., Restrepo, N. J., Leahy, R., Gabriel, N., El Oud, S., … & Lupu, Y. (2020). The online competition between pro-and anti-vaccination viewsNature, 1-4.

Lewandowsky, S., Cook, J., Ecker, U. K. H., Albarracín, D., Amazeen, M. A., Kendeou, P., Lombardi, D., Newman, E. J., Pennycook, G., Porter, E. Rand, D. G., Rapp, D. N., Reifler, J., Roozenbeek, J., Schmid, P., Seifert, C. M., Sinatra, G. M., Swire-Thompson, B., van der Linden, S., Vraga, E. K., Wood, T. J., Zaragoza, M. S. (2020). The Debunking Handbook 2020.

Ryan, C. D., Schaul, A. J., Butner, R., & Swarthout, J. T. (2020). Monetizing disinformation in the attention economy: The case of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)European Management Journal38(1), 7-18.

Van Krieken, R. (forthcoming) Economy of Attention and Attention Capital. Forthcoming in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, edited by George Ritzer & Chris Rojek

Understanding conspiracy theories and cognitive styles in a post-truth era

Over the past few years, I’ve read, enjoyed, and learned a great deal from the friendly banter that goes back and forth between Stephen Lewandowsky (@STWorg) and Dan Kahan (@cult_cognition) on Twitter. While Kahan often points to politics and ‘tribes’ as triggers for risk perception and behavior, Lewandowsky reframes things in a slightly different way. He suggests that perceptions may be less shaped by political ideology and more by something he calls “cognitive styles.”

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“Cognitive style” is a way of thinking that can often invoke conspiracy theories. Lewandowsky sees the tragic events such as 9-11 or the assassination of Kennedy as random events.  These random events are frightening and highly unpredictable. And humans (the ‘survivalists’ that we are) will create a story to make sense of these kinds of events that appear to defy explanation. These tragic, random events are then readily woven into the conspiracy theory narrative (A good example of this is The Beatles Never Existed; the greatest, weirdest conspiracy theory of all time” — yep, it’s a thing. I kid you not).

There are a couple of key behavioral characteristics of a conspiracy theorist:

  1. If a person believes in one conspiracy theory, he/she is likely to believe in others;
  2. He/she will often believe in conspiracy theories that contradict one another. (i.e. Princess Diana was murdered in a plot contrived by MI6 and Princess Diana’s death was a hoax and she is still alive and well).

The other common element to conspiratorial thinking is that the cognitive style frequently requires the fabrication of a malicious enemy. You probably know where I am going next here.  Big, bad Monsanto. Let’s face it, no story is complete without a “villain.” Without a villain, there can be no victim and, by default, no hero.  According to Lewandowsky, creating a villain gives the storyteller or conspiratorial thinker a “sense of control” and it “makes him/her feel better.”

villain

What does this mean for us as science communicators? Consumer perceptions will be influenced, to some degree, by the stories circulated by the conspiracy theorists. Conspiracy theories (and theorists) are never going to go away.  But continuing to chase fiction-filled ambulances is futile. It’s sort of like playing an ongoing game of whack-a-mole. Instead, we need to:

  1. Think proactively about how and when conspiracies may originate.
  2. Understand the triggers (events or things (i.e. new products and technologies)).
  3. Anticipate how people will potentially respond to them.
  4. Be aggressively positive about the work we do and love.
  5. Frame stories in ways that are authentic to self and, at the same time, meaningful for diverse audiences.
  6. Commit to sustained engagement. We must continue to share stories about how science improves societies and economies.

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References:

Lewandowsky, Stephan, Gilles E. Gignac, Klaus Oberauer. (2013). “The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science.” PlosONE. Volume 8, Issue 10. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0075637

Buckley, Thea. (2015). “Why Do Some People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-some-people-believe-in-conspiracy-theories/. July 27th.

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Ideological Bias & Social Survival: don’t get voted off the island!

My colleague, Bill, popped his head into my office one day with two words: “Ideological bias”. Then a few more: “What do you know?”

I shared some info with him. And I thought that I would share it with you, my reader.

ideological bias

Ideological bias is less of a ‘thing’ than it is a family of things. It is defined as a collection of ideas, or beliefs, held by an individual, or a group of people. Ideology and bias – together – are built upon commitments to and consistency of ideas usually in the form of promise, effort, money, beliefs, relationships.

Ideological bias is a part of a broader family of interconnected behaviors and biases.

  • There’s confirmation bias where humans like to seek out information that affirms their world views. If faced with (accurate) information that shakes the ground beneath ‘sacred cows’ (beliefs), one is more likely to retreat and follow information that supports a personal world view. And if that accurate information is delivered in a such a way that is received as a ‘personal affront’ (so, poorly communicated), we are left with a backfire effect that can push people even deeper into ideological spaces.
  • There is also identity protective motivated reasoning which reinforces personal standing in social groups. What dominates people’s fears today is social alienation. This kind of motivated reasoning protects people from this.
  • We also become solution averse (which is linked closely to both identity protective motivated reasoning and confirmation bias) where we just avoid workable solutions (like GE crops) because they do not resonate with our ideological bias or world view.
  • Biased assimilation might sometimes be involved (or appear to be involved) when identity protective motivated reasoning is at work. But because sticking to what one believes doesn’t always promote one’s status in one’s group, people will often be motivated to construe information in ways that have no relation to what they already believe. (Kahan looks at this / see his quote below).
  • Further complicating (polluting?) the environment is media bias wherein decisions by editorial staff and journalists shape news stories to suit political opinions. We see this in play out currently in ‘fake news’ or through ‘alternative facts’ (not to mention, our interconnected, social media-driven world just adds to all of this).

There are others: intellectual and emotional bias, political bias, sensory bias, social bias, and content bias. The list is endless. But a key underlying element to all of this is how personal networks become a very important ‘enforcement’ factors for and key outputs of ideological bias. Yale’s Dan Kahan says it best:

“People acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand…The trouble starts when this communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings — ones that effectively announce that ‘if you are one of us, believe this; otherwise, we’ll know you are one of them’. In that situation, ordinary individuals’ lives will go better if their perceptions of societal risk conform with those of their group.”

struggle is real

Social networks are important to the human animal; for status, personal identity, and for survival. In our outreach efforts, we must seek ways to communicate the good news about science and modern agriculture in ways that won’t alienate people from their close personal networks – and compromise their identities.

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Ready, set, shame!

Under the Influence (CBC) has been a favorite program of mine for some time. Terry O’Reilly, the host, explores the evolution of marketing from the 20th century into the 21st century…it’s really fascinating stuff. I always enjoy O’Reilly’s honey-smooth vocal intonations as he creatively grounds his observations in real-world scenarios. In this podcast from 2013 called Shame: the secret tool of modern marketing, Terry “…peels back the layers of shame in our modern world.”

To understand how marketing works today, O-Reilly says “we first need to go back in time”. Unlike today, in the early to mid 1800s we didn’t really care a great deal about how we smelled or what color our teeth were. Through an effective advertising strategy of “social shaming”, companies have been able to position their products and gain market share for the past 150 years. This approach is characterized through messages like: “Control that body odor, people are talking about you!” or “Halitosis is making you a social pariah” or “if you have whiter teeth you will attract the right partner”.

What do bad breath, yellow teeth, and body odor have to do with this blog post? Nothing really. But this whole notion of “social shaming” certainly does. By explicitly promoting the benefits (i.e. whiter teeth) of a given product, companies are implicitly communicating negative social impacts by not using the product.

Setting the “shaming” scene

CR-ShockLast fall, I attended a local community event in rural Alberta where there were a number of young moms in the room, balancing cherubic babies on their hips.  I eavesdropped in on an exchange that went something like this:

Mom #1 says proudly: “Jacob just moved up from rice cereal to baby food.”

Mom #2: “Oh, what are you feeding him?”

Mom #1: “Oh, I picked up [Name Brand] baby food at [Store Name]. We are trying that for now. We bought a selection of different vegetables and fruits to see how he likes them.”

Mom #3: “Well, I certainly hope that it’s organic!”

Mom #1: “Um… I don’t know. Well, I don’t think so…I…”

Mom #2: “I only feed Kaelynn organic baby food. In fact, I special order it in from [Specialty Baby Food Company].”

Mom #3: “I’ve heard about that! I feed my baby natural baby food with no preservatives that I get from [Local High-Priced “Natural” Grocery Store].

Mom #1: “But isn’t that expensive?”

Mom #2: “Yes, it is more money than the supermarket-bought brands but my Kaelyn is worth it.”

Mom #3: “…After all, Mom #1, the safety and health of our babies is important.”

*awkward silence*

Mom #1 looks awkwardly at her feet and shifts healthy, cherubic Jacob to the other hip.

Mom #2 and Mom #3 mentally un-invite Mom #1 from the next play date.

[END SCENE]

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We humans are social animals

As Matthew Lieberman says, we are “wired to connect” (2013). Our nature is to elevate and preserve status we have within the social ‘herd’. To do so, we need to abide by the collective rules of that social network.  If necessary, humans will go to great lengths to protect a position. This is reflected in our “conforming” behaviors  (see Christakis and Fowler 2009). We pick up on social cues (behaviors) of others to know if and when we have “fallen out of favor” or crossed the boundaries of social norms. When it appears that we have broken away from “what is acceptable”, we risk being penalized by our network. Our social environment has changed a great deal over the years where platforms like Facebook and Twitter have grown into central components of our daily human-to-human interactions:

“…social media increases the ability of aggrieved individuals to rally a large group of people around their cause, or publicly expose and embarrass someone they define as a deviant…A virtual mob can be mobilized overnight to spread the word of someone’s alleged wrongdoing, flood his or her inbox with hate mail, and apply other kinds of pressure.”

– Jason Manning, Assistant Professor, West Virginia University –

Tapping into our base fears

Because we are pack animals, we rely on our personal networks for affirmation and survival. If socially ostracized, our visceral response is that our ‘survival’ is in jeopardy.  Advertisers are well-aware of these fears. It is not only companies that employ these kinds of tactics to persuade consumers to buy their products. The ‘social shaming’ strategy is effectively used by different actors in various parts of our social world to influence behavior and public opinion. Via social media, we can easily lob shame-bombs at anyone we disagree with while ducking real accountability for those actions (often shielded behind anonymous profiles).

And sadly, as the above story illustrates, we often use these same shaming tactics on our own friends, family, and community members.

Suggested things to read, see, and listen to: