We're all vulnerable to misinformation

A laughing woman with blue streaks in dark hair wearing a red blazer

You’re never too smart, too educated, too well-read, too worldly or too skeptical to avoid being misled by misinformation.

That’s because the system of misinformation — from errors made without malice to sloppy social media sharing to weaponized lies — is bigger and more powerful than you are, and it preys on your weaknesses.

“We have psychological vulnerabilities that predispose us to misinformation,” says Jaigris Hodson, a Royal Roads University associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Digital Communication for the Public Interest. She says we tend to pay more attention, for example, to things that are highly emotional and information that reinforces our existing beliefs.

That’s just one of the takeaways about misinformation from her new podcast series, the Digital Public Interest Podcast, Season 2: Misinformation Series, to be released Jan. 16 on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Spotify.

In the 10-part series, Hodson speaks with a variety of guests, including Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist at the University of Bristol (U.K.); Timothy Caulfield, a Canadian professor and researcher known for his book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash; and Nancy Rosenblum of Harvard, co-author of A Lot of People are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy.

“Something we learned in these interviews is nobody is immune,” Hodson says. “One of the most important messages that I hope people take away from this [podcast series] is it’s not you’re right and other people are stupid or wrong. We can all be, at some point, made vulnerable to misinformation and it’s simply because of these psychological defences that don’t nearly work so well in an era of infinite information.”

In doing the interviews, she says, she learned that, faced with massive amounts of information on a huge variety of topics, people rely on people or media they trust to sort and serve up an accurate picture of an issue.

“How are you supposed to know everything about everything?” she says. “I know a lot about communication, I don’t know about epidemiology, so who do I trust when somebody tells me information about how to keep myself safe during COVID and there’s a lot of conflicting information about that?

“We all, at one time or another, have to rely on mental shortcuts, and as soon as we rely on these shortcuts, we are all made vulnerable. It’s not just people who believe in conspiracy theories — it’s everybody.”

Hodson says while social media is certainly a culprit when it comes to spreading misinformation, so is traditional news media, from the likes of Fox News amplifying lies by former U.S. president Donald Trump to journalists at local newspapers pressured to produce content quickly to chase online readership and sourcing content from the likes of Twitter.

Even the worlds of science and academia are not immune, she says, noting, “I’m passionate about this because, as someone who studies misinformation, part of the problem is that information like scientific information is paywalled or difficult to access, and bullshit is free and it’s easy to access.”

Which is one reason she opted to create a podcast series to study misinformation. She received a grant to bring together experts in misinformation before COVID hit and pondering how to do it safely during the pandemic prompted the use of the ascendant medium. The result is the 45- to 60-minute interviews that span a variety of disciplines.

Hodson says she hopes listeners take from the series that misinformation is not a trivial topic that simply annoys, confuses or enrages us; rather, when it comes to, say, medical or even political misinformation, it can be downright dangerous.

• See the full list of guests on the podcast series.


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