Why Does Social Media Lead Us to Believe Things That Are Not True?

Overcoming vaccine hesitancy in the U.S. - Part 1

Since I wrote of my daughter Pepper on Autism Awareness Day, news about vaccinations in the U.S. has been getting better. Not only did I complete my Pfizer vaccine series, but Pepper received her first shot this past weekend. Thanks to all of you for the support in getting out my message regarding special needs children and the need for vaccine uptake.

Further, the U.S. eclipsed 3 million shots in arms per day in April—amazing progress. But more recently, vaccine uptake has wobbled a bit, with doses in arms falling in May to 1.8 million per day—just a little more than half of the April peak. It’s not vaccine supplies and distribution now that are the problem, it’s demand. Politicization of the pandemic, mask mandate battles, and Covid-19 vaccine conspiracies - achieving herd immunity in the U.S. has become like a New Year’s resolution to lose weight: The first two-thirds of it comes off quickly, but the last couple of pounds become almost impossible to burn off. 

Social media has been the pipeline for a wide range of lies, distortions and manipulations that have changed American behavior in recent years. Americans binge-purchased toilet paper in the early months of the pandemic, digitally networked extremists stormed the Capitol, social media users forced GameStop prices to soar, and, most recently, people have rushed to gas stations in a panic following a cyberattack that was resolved fairly quickly. Today, social media has a powerful sway over our actions in the real world.

So how do we convince the remaining Americans to get the vaccine? The answer is complicated, but resides in the interplay between the medium, the message and most importantly … the messenger on social media. 

Every person’s experience on social media is uniquely different and universally distorted

When we look at information on social media, we often don’t realize three biases that sway our thinking. First is confirmation bias. We tend to seek out, consume, and internalize information from the Internet and social media that agrees with our views, appropriately represented by the “like” button or a “heart” reaction. If we’re nervous about vaccine safety, then we’re more likely to search for, locate, “like” and share content about vaccine safety. As a result, search engine and social media algorithms deliver more vaccine safety related content reinforcing a loop of confirmatory information. The information a user sees may be correct, or may not be correct, depending on the social media platform and its curation of content and policing of bad actors.

A second, understated and more powerful, force in social media is implicit bias. We tend to trust information that comes from social media users that look like, talk like and think like we do. Social media naturally herds us into online communities of like-minded and similar looking users specially selected from our family, friends, co-workers and those we admire. When our herd delivers information into our electronic feeds, we tend to believe the information— whether it’s true or not—because we implicitly trust people from our digital tribe. As a result, on social media, the source of the information is not necessarily the creator of the information, but rather the user who shared the information with us. This dynamic often leads to well-meaning people consuming and sharing incorrect and at times nonsensical information from friends and family because they implicitly trust the person that shared it with them.

Finally, availability bias ensures that we often see the most extreme or frightening news on any given topic. Calamitous, fear-based messaging—tales of disaster, travesty, violence or safety mishaps—travels farther and faster than bland messages citing safety statistics or even positive news stories. Because tragic stories confirm one’s worries, triggering our natural survival instincts, or are sent to users by others that are worried about potential harms, they become easily and overwhelming available in one’s social media feed—a modern-day user-generated version of the old TV news mantra “if it bleeds, it leads.” Anomalous, vaccine mishaps and outright bogus conspiracies can easily overwhelm social media users, while facts about vaccine efficacy and safety fall into the Internet abyss drowned out by sensational stories or blatant misrepresentations of legitimate facts. Add to this the perverse incentives of fake cure fraudsters, misguided activists, and political manipulators pumping high rates of sensationalized content, and on any given day a social media user will see a confusing batch of scary, contradictory and hyperbolic information online. In short, on any given issue, there’s an infinite number of falsehoods and only one truth, and the only thing worse than no information, now, is too much information. 

Platforms and user biases are part of the problem, but manipulators make these worse

For manipulators, these three biases provide easy pathways for employing social media to overwhelm one’s ability to clearly assess reality. As more manipulators converge in pursuit of the same objective, their combined efforts exponentially warp the perception of information consumers who unknowingly are locked into news and opinion feeds of reinforcing propaganda, strategically placed disinformation, and reciprocating misinformation.

The end results of years of enduring manipulation campaigns have hit America squarely in the face in 2021 resulting in two major issues undermining U.S. democracy and America’s rebound from the pandemic. First, political partisans and extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 over an election that wasn’t stolen. Second, Americans upset over mask mandates, lockdown orders, and the economic impacts of a pandemic are refusing to receive a vaccine that would end mask mandates, lockdown orders and the pandemic. Both of these issues are national embarrassments, based on broadly disseminated fictions that are not only facilitated but empowered by social media. I personally do not believe either of these devastating phenomena would have occurred prior to the advent of social media.

Four factors making social media manipulators so successful in distorting American perceptions

Rumor psychology research provides an easy-to-use framework for understanding how audiences can be manipulated over time resulting in behavior change real world behavior change. The world’s best information manipulators—Russian troll farms, American political consultants, the “Mad Men”of the 1960s, today’s fake cure and health fraudsters, partisan grifters, web conspirators, and YouTube gurus—understand our biases, deliver messages persistently in pursuit of their objectives and know how to shape our perceptions using simple tricks. 

If one wants to sway public opinion or insight a mob, they must understand what information consumers tend to believe, and each of these things play to the three biases warped by social media—confirmation, implicit and availability:

  • First: The first thing that someone sees is more likely to be believed. Even if it’s false, a person will tend to believe it because it must be evaluated without the presence of an alternative explanation or point of view. Those that communicate quickly seize the advantage in shaping an information consumer’s perspective. Confirmation bias and availability bias on social media make it possible for manipulators spewing false information to get to an audience quicker than health experts, for example, who are arbitrating the truth. 

  • Most: That which one sees over and over again also tends to be believed. It’s natural for anyone who hears anything repeatedly to assume it's correct, hence the phrase conventional wisdom, which more often than not means nothing more thanmany people are saying” or everyone is saying” something regardless of whether it’s correct or based on real evidence. Advertisers have employed repetition for a century because it works, and today social media provides myriad ways—both algorithmic and human-induced—for information consumers to hear the same thing over and over again. 

  • Trusted source: Audiences prefer information that comes from a trusted source. In the analog media environment of local newspapers, radio and television complemented by three mainstream national television news broadcasts narrated by three similar looking middle-aged white men interviewing similar looking government officials, trust arose from the institutions, elected officials, and the few media outlets that presented information. Today, on social media, this entire perspective has been upended in both good and bad ways. On the downside, social media trust arises now from the source of delivery rather than the institution, hence consumers seek out information from trusted sources that mirror their actual or perceived identity and physical characteristics. Trust arises from the appearance, the speech, the emotion of the social media influencer more so than the integrity and validity of the information the messenger is providing. Increasingly, we are unlikely to know or even be able to trace the originating facts and data that underpin the truth to its original source, instead, the loudest voice on social media is left as definer of reality. 

  • No rebuttal: Lastly, information consumers are likely to believe false information if it’s not challenged by the truth. Social media feeds filled with like-minded messengers delivering confirmatory messages rarely face any challenges, especially in a time when users can literally shut off rebuttals in the form of unfollows or blocking on social media. When the truth doesn’t confirm one’s beliefs or come from a trusted member of our digital tribe, it’s unlikely to arrive in a user’s feed at all. If blocking doesn’t work, manipulators with enough time and resources can launch enduring smear campaigns to discredit their challengers, like the many social media bombardments we’ve seen levied against public health experts during the pandemic.

Recognizing our biases, how they’re contorted on social media and how manipulators seize upon this system of distortion in pursuit of their objectives, we can start to think about how we restore American confidence in institutions, elections and most importantly in 2021 - vaccines. 

Next, I’ll discuss methods by which America may be able to “scale truth” and overcome its  “one messenger problem.”