Nadejda Komendantova is the senior research scholar and group leader of the Cooperation and Transformative Governance Group at the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis as well as a professor at the Advanced Management Institute for Science, Technology and Applied Development Studies in Botswana (AMISTAD).
According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, misinformation is usually referred to as inaccurate or false information, which is being spread intentionally through various communication channels. Misinformation is not a new phenomenon. As soon as humanity acquired the ability to communicate, misinformation appeared. However, the development of digital technologies has dramatically influenced the spread of misinformation, making it almost universal. With the intention to attract visitors to their platforms, a single tweet from powerful “influencers” that is not fact-checked can affect people’s lives in unexpected ways.
Digital, fast and apparently spontaneous social media accelerates the viral spread of people’s emotional expressions of primordial fears, aggression and contempt. The anonymity of those who share content and the substantial lack of sanctioning mechanisms allow for the misrepresentation of messages, even discriminatory language and hate speech against individuals or groups of people.
Being such an emotionally-charged environment, social media fosters a cognitive process that is usually referred to as ‘emotional reasoning’, by which individuals conclude that their emotional reaction proves that something is true, despite contrary empirical evidence. First introduced by psychiatrist, Aaron Beck, emotional reasoning creates an ’emotional truth’, which may be in direct conflict with fact-based information. This cognitive process explains how social media is an environment particularly prone to misinformation, fostering preconditions and prejudices, resulting in discrimination, intolerance of differing viewpoints, and unjust treatment of certain social groups.
Migration is frequently a subject of misinformation. Attitudes towards migrants are influenced by opinions and perceptions that are, in turn, a subject of influence from social media. The perceptions towards migrants are subjective constructs, which are sensitive not only to such factors as socialization, experience, awareness, education, and moral norms, but also to information. While traditional media still offers a primarily passive experience to those who consume information, content on social media triggers reactions in an environment where everyone can comment and express opinions about the topic under discussion, creating a whole stream of sentiments. Beyond simple likes, these sentiments shape the ‘emotional truth’ that plays an extremely important role in forming prejudices and misconceptions, as it provides the ground to fill gaps in the available information or to replace the missing personal experience. This explains why migrants, particularly those originating from countries with unfamiliar cultures, are confronted with more pre-conditional judgement because of their appearance, clothing, or form of communication.
Developing digital tools that deal with misinformation in social media may offer a possible approach to address and counteract the spread of misinformation. According to new research carried out by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in the framework of the CORE and Co-Inform projects funded by the European Commission, digital tools that are suitably developed can stimulate critical thinking and draw attention to misinforming content without censoring the internet.
The project has tested digital tools such as a browser plugin, a fact-checking dashboard, and a Twitter channel, to stimulate critical thinking and the desire for social media users to search for more information. These tools offer possibilities for debunking misinformation while highlighting the fact that information might come from a source that already has a reputation for spreading misinformation. The aim of the tools are to break the cycle of intuitive reaction based on personal perceptions or emotional feedback. They encourage internet users to think critically, search for further information on the topic or news item, rather than following their immediate instinct to spread the potentially misinforming content further.
The internet has influenced the world of information in unpredictable ways, posing dilemmas about how to balance freedom of expression with the need to prevent misinformation and its damaging impact on individuals and societies. It is especially crucial to develop policy and operational measures to increase user’s and consumer’s resilience to misinformation. Artificial Intelligence can offer viable tools that are worth exploring further, while re-doubling offline and online efforts to renew and mobilize attention around sources of texts, images and videos. Not an easy task in times of Chat GPT and the slew of AI content creation software that has infiltrated the online space recently.