The spread of false information has led to real consequences, for both individuals and broader industries: In Wisconsin, a hospital pharmacist pleaded guilty after intentionally trying to destroy hundreds of COVID-19 vaccine doses stored at his workplace. A conspiracy theory linking 5G wireless technology to the spread of the coronavirus reportedly motivated a string of arson and vandalism acts against wireless towers across the U.K.
“Really, the coronavirus pandemic has just highlighted for us some of the consequences of what was already recognized as a growing problem,” said Colleen Sinclair, associate professor of psychology at Mississippi State University.
Sinclair, who researches “aggressive behavior” as part of her social science interests at MSU, has previously published on the spread of misinformation (false information spread unintentionally) and disinformation (false information deliberately generated and spread).
Hosted via Zoom by the John C. Culver Public Policy Center at Simpson College on Wednesday, Sinclair’s public presentation highlighted a few of the key warning signs of misinformation spread.
All individuals are susceptible to confirmation bias of their own beliefs, and that means all individuals are at risk of believing and spreading misinformation online, Sinclair said. With 65% of Americans using social media as a source of information, users must learn to recognize when an environment is putting them at risk of spreading misinformation.
“We find that people who feel that they are less susceptible to misinformation, who don’t think of themselves as gullible, are actually some of the most vulnerable people,” Sinclair said. “The simple fact of the matter is that no one is immune here.”
Older adults — particularly 65 years and older — have been identified as more likely to share false information on social media. Age may be related to the strength of a person’s digital literacy skills, or how familiar that person is with how information on the internet is spread.
The best practices to stop spreading misinformation as an individual are the simplest, SInclair said: Take it slow.
“Whenever you’re making the choice to share a particular piece of information, are you doing it to entertain people? Are you doing it because you’re after the ‘likes’? Is it something you think that people should know? It’s important to analyze what your motives are,” Sinclair said. “Taking a moment to pause and think about what it is that you’re doing — what the consequences are — can slow down the spread. … The more we make that an automatic reflex, the less likely we are to spread misinformation.”