Why mud sticks

There have been some odious occupations throughout human history. Earning your keep as an executioner was pretty low. Being a “torturer”, whether sponsored by state or church, wasn’t something you would be keen to announce at dinner parties either. Leech collectors, plague-buriers, and rat-catchers also found it difficult to claim a lofty social position. Then there is the more modern phenomenon of “spin doctors”: those folk who concern themselves not with the inherent worth or truth of a matter but with how it can be made to appear. Alas in certain spheres, mainly political and corporate, the skills offered by these mandrakes of reality are highly valued but why does what they do actually work? Why is it that disinformation, or misinformation, can work to obscure an issue? That is what researchers have sought to find out.

There are many topics of public discourse that are clouded by disinformation. To take but one issue: the role of humanity in global warming is confirmed by science yet there is still debate about it. Why? Because some of the disinformation around the issue has stuck.

If setting the record straight were easy to do, over the long term, disinformation would not be a concern as the facts would quickly win out. Unfortunately, this is not the case. For a variety of reasons, some to do with the nature of society and some to do with the nature of human thinking, some misinformation can be “sticky” and take hold and difficult to correct.

Researchers from the University of Western Australia have found that disinformation is quite likely to “stick” when it conforms to a pre-existing political, religious, or social perspective. This means that ideology and personal worldviews can be particularly difficult to overcome. If truth doesn’t matter to you then all you need to do to obscure an issue is to appeal to what people want to believe. That is why things like the climate change “debate” become so difficult.

The good news is that these researchers also put forward some strategies to combat disinformation. These include; provide a narrative that fills the gap left by the disinformation, focus on the facts you want to highlight (rather than the myths being perpetuated), keep your information simple and brief, and repeat your message.

If you keep in mind the old acronym for advertisers everywhere KISS (keep it simple, stupid), then combating disinformation really comes down to a matter of KISS and tell.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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