Why it’s hard to debunk misinformation

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Why is it hard to debunk misinformation? Why aren’t people willing to change their minds? Part of the problem lies within our own psyche, and part of the problem is with the news media.

Ezra Klein of Vox interviewed Dartmouth University political scientist Brendan Nyhan about our reticence to accept proven facts. The underlying problem is that we’re slow to update our belief system. No one likes to admit he’s wrong, and admitting you’re wrong becomes even harder when the subject is tied to your political beliefs.

On top of that, there’s little consequence to clinging to falsehoods concerning politics. Think about it, no matter how wrong you may be, what does it cost you, especially if your social circle is limited to people who think like you? Our sense of self has become more important than having an accurate view of world events.

The media is also to blame. With so many news services and 24-hour broadcasts, competition for our attention is fierce. The name of the game is to broadcast events as soon as they happens, with little concern for filtering what is being said and presenting the facts accurately. With priority being given to attention-grabbing, it’s not unusual for news media to broadcast what a politician said just minutes after he said it and then hear the same statement repeated by people in his camp. After a while, viewers lose track, and the repeated statements—no matter how false they may be—become reality.

What to do? Here are five ideas.

Look for confirmation. Just because a politician or a pundit makes a statement doesn’t mean the statement is true. Look to other news sources for confirmation. Remember President Trump saying he saw thousands of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey after the 9/11 attack? There was no evidence to prove his story (but he kept repeating it).

Recognize that repetition does not make something true. Instead of accepting a repeated statement as true, look for the actual source of the news. Trump and people in his camp have talked repeatedly about three million people voting illegally in the 2016 presidential elections, but I haven’t heard one secretary of state—the officials who run elections—confirm that a voting problem exists.

Correction: there is one secretary of state who believes there’s a voter fraud problem—Kris Kobach of Kansas, who was appointed by Trump to investigate voter fraud. Because Kobach believes the 2016 election was rife with voter fraud—a claim that has been debunked—he won’t admit Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. I suppose the other 49 secretaries of state in the U.S. are wrong.

If the news sounds crazy, maybe it is. Years back, the late Fred Thompson (a former actor and U.S. Senator) had a talk radio show. One of his guests in 2009, Betsy McCaughey, voiced her alarm about a provision in the then-pending Affordable Care Act that would authorize “death panels” to decide what medical care the elderly would receive. What?!

I researched the bill. Sure enough—no death panels, but there was a provision that would authorize the use of Medicare funds for physicians to talk with their patients about end of life medical treatment. Even without doing the research, McCaughey’s claim didn’t make sense—the American Association of Retired Persons supported the bill.

Take an active interest in getting it right. Anybody can repeat a sound bite. Heck, parrots can do that. If we want this difficult system of democracy to work—and democracy is difficult, because it requires each of us to think—then be a discerning listener and try to figure out what the reality is.

Be slow to accept what is presented as fact.  Long gone are the days of Walter Cronkite. When he delivered the news, America didn’t have to wonder whether it was true. Regrettably, it’s a different world. Be skeptical of what you hear.


Jack D’Aurora writes for


Also published on Medium.

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  1. Fil Line  January 3, 2018

    Well said, as usual, Jack, but too bad you didn’t offer a couple of examples from the other side of the aisle, like the notorious Harry Reid or the ever-panicked Nancy Pelosi. Surely there are others??

    •  January 3, 2018

      I certainly don’t mean to be an apologist for either Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi. You’re right. Adding some fake news from the left would have made for a more balanced piece.

  2. Bob C.  January 3, 2018

    as usual, interesting thoughts!
    I am a firm believer that no one ever changes their mind, surely this would be a sign of insanity!
    However I am a big believer that people do make new decisions, based on new facts!!!

  3. ROBIN LORMS  January 3, 2018

    I am in total agreement with your observations about the self serving tendency to spread falsehoods that fit our belief system. I can’t tell you how many false emails I receive about the left and the right in our political arena. I have had to take lots of time to look up the truth of the claims. Once I feel the truth has been discovered, I then make it a point to “Reply to All” with either a quote on the truth or a link for self verification. Regardless, seldom do I receive a return email thanking me for the truth. People do have a self serving bias ( media included ) that prevents them from “humbly” accepting the truth–even when it is presented in an honest response. Thanks for bringing this phenomenon to the light.

    Robin Lorms

  4. Alice Foeller  January 5, 2018

    I’m reading “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman. He dissects this phenomenon very well, too. He shares a hysterical story about working on a new educational curriculum (ironically on the topic of rational decision making). After working on it for a few months, the group members polled themselves on how long they thought it would take to complete the project. Everyone estimated 1.5 to 2.5 years. One of the members admitted he knew of multiple groups that had worked on educational curricula. A large number had failed to complete their projects. The projects that were completed took an average of seven years, and their working groups had slightly more experience and expertise than this group.

    The group went silent for a while and then tried to debunk this new set of facts. Everyone resumed working on the project as if they had not heard what the one group member had told them. They were confident they would finish in two years. Eight years later, they finished the curriculum, but at that point the government was no longer interested, and so the project was not adopted.

    And this is from a Nobel Prize winner in economic behavioral theory! It’s nearly hopeless that the rest of us will do better, but I resolve to apply statistics and fact checking before repeating things from the news.

    •  January 5, 2018

      I think the moral of your story is, even academics are subject to the same human frailties as the rest of us. Yep, when it comes to error, we’re all in this together.


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