Misinformation and its role in politics took center stage at the third event hosted by Mens et Manus America, an MIT initiative focused on exploring the social, political, and economic challenges currently facing the United States.
Adam J. Berinsky, professor of poltical science, joined Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, the Siteman Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, to share political science and sociological research about the impact of rumors, lies, and fake news on America's political process. Agustín Rayo, associate dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, moderated the lunchtime talk, which drew a full house to Room E51-345 on May 1.
Technology accelerates the spread of false information
"Rumors are not new. What's new is how really widely they can spread," said Berinsky, whose research focuses on how false information propagates and what can be done to combat rumors. "Technology has changed, and so the spread has changed," he said, noting that fake news sites, tweets, blog posts, and more keep rumors circulating ad infinitum.
Berinsky said his work shows that reasonable people from both parties often come to believe bizarre stories about politicians and the political system. And even very wild rumors can be extremely difficult to dislodge from the public consciousness. "It's not that some people believe a lot of crazy things." Rather, he said, "There are a lot of people who believe some crazy things."
To counter lies: Don't repeat them, even to refute them
A vulnerability to rumors occurs regardless of political philosophy, and is basically a product of human nature, according to Berinsky. "A lot of work in psychology shows that rumors are sticky," he said.
Unfortunately, as tempting as it is to try to combat lies with truth, Berinsky said that this strategy can backfire. "People tend to forget which is myth and which is reality; they just remember that they heard this," he said. "Corrections do work, but they fade very quickly."
While Berinsky characterized his own findings as "depressing," he did suggest two ways to confront the flood of misinformation. First, he said, don't repeat lies even to refute them. Second, find and share credible sources of information.
Who can referee the flow of information?
Berinsky stressed that finding credible sources can be challenging, particularly as sources once viewed as independent have increasingly been labeled as partisan by one side or the other. "People are looking for a referee but we're playing street basketball," Berinsky said. The best sources, he said, are not neutral but rather those who are essentially speaking against their own self-interests: For example, party leaders rejecting a party claim.
Rayo later suggested that as society becomes more polarized such people may be increasingly hard to find, which exacerbates the challenge of finding credible sources.
Why do lies and demagoguery appeal to some voters?
Surprisingly, it turns out that even knowing for certain that a politician has been lying may not impair his or her popularity, according to Zuckerman, who followed Berinsky's talk with a presentation on research he and colleagues conducted into "the authentic appeal of the lying demagogue."
Zuckerman said, "We need our politicians to be authentic if we are to trust them." So, how can a candidate who is obviously lying — about facts that are commonly known — nevertheless seem authentic?
Zuckerman, a sociologist who is also the deputy dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management, said he and colleagues explored this question via a post-election survey as well as a series of experiments conducted outside the context of last year's election. In the simulated college elections they created, they found that a known liar seems more authentic than a truth teller if people think their social group is being unfairly treated by the political establishment.
"When subjects as are made to believe they are part of a group being treated unfairly, they tend to prefer the lying demagogue more than the other guy," Zuckerman said.
The bottom line, Zuckerman said, is: "We may recognize that the lying demagogue is not telling the truth, but we appreciate his willingness to challenge the establishment that we hate."
Finding common ground?
Berinsky and Zuckerman's research presentations were followed by a short question-and-answer session in which the presenters discussed such topics as whether the tendency to believe conspiracy theories is really hard-wired, as Berinsky argued, or a symptom of structural divisions, as Zuckerman submitted.
"I'm hopeful for world in which we break through some of what structurally divides us," Zuckerman said.
Berinsky was less sanguine, but suggested that the depth of the divisions revealed in the past election have been somewhat overblown. "Most people most of the time don't care very much about politics," he said. He suggested that the media tends to highlight views at the extremes of the spectrum, implying that the middle is likely larger than it appears. "There's a window to reach people," he said.
What can we as engaged citizens do?
In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, it is clear that there are major long-term social, political, and economic issues in America that require close attention. In response, members of the MIT community launched Mens et Manus America, a nonpartisan initiative that is convening a series of research-informed lectures and discussions to explore these issues. The initiative asks: What can MIT do to help address current challenges in the United States, and bolster the health of our democracy? How can we use research and rigor to inform our decisions about engagement, both as citizens and as leaders of organizations?
The initiative is sponsored by the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and the MIT Sloan School of Management.