Misinformation, uncertainty, and conspiracies, oh my!

What happens to the information ecosystem during crises like a pandemic?

Shankeri Vijayakumar

The information ecosystem, complex systems that information moves through and is transformed in, is in a constant state of flux. This ecosystem is shaped by the social, political, and cultural events happening at any given time, and the ways that information is communicated and shaped are always changing.

Periods of uncertainty, like public health crises, are notoriously breeding grounds for misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation includes types of information that contain unintentional mistakes. Disinformation is intentionally fabricated or manipulated information, like conspiracy theories. What separates the two is intent.

Together, they may culminate in the emergence of an information epidemic of misleading and inaccurate information, commonly referred to as an ‘infodemic.’ This combination has immense complications for the information ecosystem because it becomes challenging for people to distinguish between what is accurate and what is inaccurate.

Context is key to understanding how a community’s specific information consumption takes shape. And now more than ever, context is crucial to know during the infodemic of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When disinformation fills the need for information

People’s informational needs can vary greatly across subgroups within a population. Every community requires different types of information, and it is up to information producers, such as practitioners and policy makers, to produce and disseminate information to meet this need. Most importantly, the information being produced should be relevant to and inclusive of different communities.

If people feel like they are being excluded from the current dialogue, they can feel frustrated and isolated from the mainstream news conversations — and rightfully so. This can be dangerous because if people feel left out of the conversation, they may produce, disseminate, or interact with the misinformation and disinformation produced by things like conspiracy theories.

Since conspiracy theories can serve people who grapple with uncertainty and grasp onto any available information, their development and spread can exploit people’s need for certainty. For instance, when the catastrophic and tragic 9/11 terrorist attack took place, believing in President George W. Bush’s culpability could have given some people certitude in the face of informational chaos. Conspiracy theories allow people to feel like they can maintain control over events far beyond their reach.

How are misinformation and disinformation disseminated?

The hallmark of a strong information ecosystem is a diverse range of sources reporting the same information. However, as crises have shown time and time again, periods of uncertainty can create polarizing information when ecosystems become diluted with misinformation.

Ideology is a major driver for the creation and spread of disinformation, especially during major socio-political events. People may spread disinformation for entertainment and fame, to advance the political interests of state actors, or to attract mass audiences to their platforms, thus furthering their own financial interests.

For example, take influencers who pedal diet-suppressant lollipops. Although these products are proven to be ineffective and damaging — especially for young women’s body images — social media stars still get paid for the disinformation they spread.

Social media provides platforms for disinformation to easily proliferate and mutate to reach wide audiences. This is why conspiracy theories and disinformation can persist even after they lose their relevance and have been debunked.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation and disinformation has proliferated at alarmingly high rates. While some people have spread untrue rumours about the virus without malicious intent, the falsehoods circulating are still all-encompassing. Despite conspiracy theories being disputed by experts and the existence of overwhelming evidence to counter them, people continue to believe the harmful theories and spread them.

The continued spread of disinformation is, in large part, due to how social media can become toxic echo chambers of misinformation and disinformation. On many platforms, content is curated based on algorithms and user activity, so when people are engaging with accounts and content related to incorrect information, they will likely continue to get recommended similar harmful content to consume.

How do people engage with the information they receive?

The constant influx of information into the information ecosystem during times of uncertainty is not an indication of a high quality ecosystem — it can easily be muddled with disinformation too. When people are overwhelmed with information, they lean on their trusted networks and biases to determine what information they find relevant. Think about it like this: when you hear a particularly outlandish story, one of your first impulses is likely to turn to a friend or family member to see their reaction to it too.

Once information reaches people, trust is a very important factor influencing what people decide to do with that information. People are more likely to believe information when it comes from people whom they know and closely identify with.

People’s internal biases also determine what information they find relevant. Usually, people will seek out information that aligns with their preconceived notions of a subject. If they encounter information that challenges their current perception, they are likely to stand firm in their views and continue to seek out information that aligns with their beliefs.

Regardless, even if the information people find relevant is unverified or inaccurate, they will still engage with it if it assuages their need for information. That is why people latch onto conspiracy theories; they provide a belief framework that allows people to feel a sense of control and manage their fears of uncertainty related to world events.

The ultimate impact of an infodemic

Another vital part of the information ecosystem is the impact that information has on individuals and communities. The overwhelming amount of information people have access to during times of uncertainty, coupled with the mix of disinformation, can have serious effects on how people react to the world around them.

As seen with the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, when people don’t trust the sources reporting on the severity of the pandemic or the efficacy of preventive public health measures, they are likely to engage in risky behaviours that go against evidence and cause harm to others.

The relationship between information and behavioural change is constantly complicated by the infodemic crises that we continue to experience. Misinformation and disinformation will always surround things like major public health and environmental changes. The considerable impacts that infodemics have on people’s attitudes and behaviours toward others will continue to shape our world to come.