I was reading an article in The Atlantic that reminded me of a truism of social psychology. The article discussed the recent survey that claims over 50% of Mississippi Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim. The article was not the typical “how stupid are conservatives” tripe we have come to expect in regards to these sorts of polls. Instead, it focused on the wider issue of how lies become the truth. Essentially, the article argued that the more often a lie is repeated, even in an effort to disprove it, the more it becomes fact.
The more times a false claim is repeated, the more likely people are to be exposed to it. The fewer people exposed to a false claim, the less likely it is to spread. It is also important not to repeat false claims because people are more likely to judge familiar claims as true. As false claims are repeated, they become more familiar and thus may come to seem more true to people.
This is a profoundly important principle for honest people to understand, because those that wish to manipulate the general public already know it. Many of us who routinely try to educate others, whether it is about writing scams or questionable business tactics or just interpersonal relationships, often accidentally play right into this.
There are actually three separate problems at work. This situation regarding familiarity and perceived fact is one of them. The second problem is that people instinctively believe the first version of a story they hear. We even learn this as children and realize we need to tell “our version” first in order to be believed. The third problem is that people tend to give more weight to things that they WANT to be true, even if they should realize that something is not true in reality.
So we have the following scenario:
1.: An audience that wants to believe certain facts, because those facts fit into their personal worldview.
2.: A perpetrator who is able to tell his or her version of the facts first to the susceptible audience.
3.: A facilitator who, in an attempt to disprove the fallacy, reinforces the fallacy by repeating it over and over.
This isn’t just a problem of “the other side,” either. We are all susceptible to this process. People who believe all Republicans are engaged in a “War of Women,” for example, are going to be inclined to believe any Republican policy has a secret anti-woman agenda just because their favorite organizations tell them so. When Indiana Representative Bob Morris made his bizarre claim that the Girl Scouts promoted abortion and homosexuality, it didn’t matter to most people that every other Indiana lawmaker, Republican and Democrat alike, denounced the statements as ludicrous. Morris is a Republican, Republicans hate women, and therefore this was proof the entire Republican party was anti-women. The narrative became fixed in the left-leaning media as part of the anti-woman plot of the Republican party.
Which brings us back to the most recent Rush Limbaugh dustup. Many people have condemned his verbal attacks on Sandra Fluke. Women throughout the U.S. were insulted by the comments. But the broader question is, why did anyone repeat them to begin with? The audience of Rush Limbaugh is inclined to believe this sort of nonsense, and Limbaugh perpetuated it by telling them his version of the narrative. But without facilitators to spread the lie, even in an attempt to disprove it, it merely reinforced it in the minds of those inclined to agree with it.
Let’s be honest. Someone, somewhere, is right now saying something to someone that would offend you. In fact, there is a good chance that at some point today, YOU will say something to someone that would offend someone else if they heard it. Yet miraculously these statements manage to never spread beyond the narrow audience they were originally intended for. But take any one of these statements and post it on Facebook or Twitter or Youtube, and suddenly we have an offensive epidemic.
This is not to say we shouldn’t speak up when we come across false information. If false information is being used as the basis of passing a law, then we have a responsibility to speak out against the law. If false information is being used to engage in criminal activity, we should speak out. But maybe we should step back when confronted with the thousands of nuisance falsehoods that we accidentally stumble over each day and consider how we respond, why we are responding, and what impact the response will actually have.
Do we respond to a “factually challenged” blog post in the comments section of the blog, or perpetuate the lie by reposting it in other places to discuss it? Do you let the lie languish among its own tiny audience, or do you give it a larger audience and make it stronger? Do you allow a lie to “die out” naturally in the attention-deficient ocean of the internet, or do you put it on life support by repeating it over and over again in order to ‘warn” other people about it?