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University Of Arizona Professor Explains How Misinformation Undermines Confidence In Political Institutions

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Friday, November 6, 2020 - 12:53pm

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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The latest iteration of election-related misinformation in Arizona took an unexpected form this week. "SharpieGate" has an amusing, if not unimaginative ring to it, but the nickname given to fast-flying rumors of uncounted ballots that were filled out with, yes, Sharpie markers belie the very serious nature of false information that can lead to distrust in the best case scenarios. It's easy to think of misinformation as something nebulous or simply a head-shaker without any true impact. But false information has been spread by officials too — people the public count on to know the difference between fact and fabrication. So to what extent do incidents like SharpieGate undermine public confidence? How has our cynicism been deepened by misinformation from within our own systems? Kate Kenski is a professor in the Department of Communication in the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. She recently explored what happens when people believe they're being misled. And I spoke with her. We began with her observations on the effects of social media.

KATE KENSKI: I think that the important thing to keep in mind is that when people are on social media, it is very easy to kind of go down the rabbit hole and stay within what we call an echo chamber. So you're getting reinforced on the things you want to believe because you don't like the other side, and you're not getting as much of that pushback from other points of view. In times prior to social media, it's not that misinformation wasn't there, but the where we got our political information tended to at least give us a wider perspective than, than those tunnels.

GOLDSTEIN: Every city had a major newspaper. And whether people loved the newspaper or not, pretty much everyone read it. That has dramatically changed over the past decade or so. And it's so splintered in terms of where people get their information. Do you see the, the misinformation being somewhat cyclical, I guess? That as people get more and more used to thinking about it that way — "Sorry, my source of news may not be the exact perfect one I think it is." Or to some extent, are we sort of losing our ability to gauge information for misinformation?

KENSKI: My perception is that it's the latter. That we are having a really difficult time, because at least when we read the newspaper in our city and, you know, we might have thought it was a rag, but we were using the same information and basis of facts. And if we disagreed with a fact, we could focus on that one piece. The problem with social media is that it splinters us so that we're not even talking about the same priorities. We're not talking within the same frame. And so sometimes we're not even pushing back on someone else's frame. It's almost like two, you know, two ships passing in the night. We're in two completely different zones from people from the other side. And because we're not having that, that common source of framing or information, it's really hard to have any kind of deep debate.

GOLDSTEIN: Certainly we've seen this week in various states and Arizona as well as the ballot counting continues. And we see in some cases, tens of people, in some cases hundreds of people out protesting, depending on which way they want, whether let's vote — let's count more votes, let's stop the count, whatever it may be. These are people who probably would not be considered mainstream. Do you think there's a perception of those who will watch, whether it's Fox News or CNN or MSNBC, whatever media outlet, that those folks who are out there are in some cases, let's say more within the mainstream because they're being covered by media?

KENSKI: Absolutely. And I think that's always the case. I think that when we see — well, first of all, we should say that when media typically cover stories, they choose people from not always the mainstream of each party. I mean, often to the side, because that produces conflict, and conflict is, you know, much more dramatic and interesting to talk about than, you know, two people from different perspectives getting along. So there's that. I think we also have a tendency to want to be — to believe the worst in the other side. And when we do that, what we end up doing is scanning the environment for people who show the worst traits, because then that feeds into our own personal narrative about how awful the other side is. And so I think that even if the media were to point out that the people protesting are not mainstream, I think that the perception is they disagree with what I believe and therefore they are representative of that other side that isn't mine.

GOLDSTEIN: Is there anything you would advise voters generally as they're trying to learn what sort of communication and what sort of things and how to process things, frankly, when it comes to all this information being — in some cases, misinformation — being thrown at us for months and months and months leading up to an election?

KENSKI: A few things. First, I would say if you can take the time to do some internal evaluation of where you stand and how you perceive others, that's a good thing, because I think sometimes we are afraid to acknowledge that we all contain biases. And those biases, they shape what information we privilege and what information we decide to avoid. One way that we can look at those biases is doing things like going to Project Implicit. If you Google it, Project Implicit. It provides an opportunity to assess our biases using a technique that's really hard to fool. And so Project Implicit offers tests on, you know, how biased we are towards women in science, you know, on race, on religion and ideology. And so I think, you know, coming to terms with our own biases is important. And when you fill out Project Implicit's tests, it's confidential, and so they won't be revealing that information, connecting it to you personally. So it's a good evaluation. The other thing that I think you — that's important is that when we are reading information, we have to be mindful of what the source is. Does the source have some motivation that, that's pretty clear before we get to it? Hopefully we're not so broad as to say that anything coming from such and such a newspaper or such and such a network or such and such a radio station is bias. But sometimes we can know things about particular speakers and we can make some inferences about, you know, where they're coming from. Another thing to keep in mind is if we have a strong, visceral reaction to content, we need to ask ourselves, why. Are we having this reaction because it's factually wrong and there's evidence that it's factually wrong, or does it make, make us uncomfortable. And I think one thing that we're not really good at — I don't think people are in general, but I think perhaps our American culture in particular is not very good at — is, is coming to terms with, you know, things that aren't brought to us quickly, you know, immediate satisfaction. And we really dislike discomfort. And what I would, you know, what I think would be healthy is for us maybe to embrace the discomfort. And when we see something that maybe doesn't make our side look very good, we need to ask ourselves, is that generally a problem or are we trying to minimize it because that's easier on us.

GOLDSTEIN: Kate Kenski is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Arizona.

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