“Misinformation, disinformation, and violent conflict: From Iraq and the “War on Terror” to future threats to peace”

[Political Psychology]

“Truth is the first casualty of war,” stated Aeschylus circa 500 BC*. Those words ring just as true 2500 years later. In a special issue of American Psychologist, Lewandosky et al. examined the ways misinformation in the digital age can contribute to war and conflict and reviewed the psychological processes that contribute to the support and perpetuation of misinformation. Lewandosky et al. employ two case studies in their review: a retrospective examination of the effect of misinformation during the 2003 Iraq War and the “War on Terror,” and a prospective look at the potential conflicts that could arise as a result of climate change–partly due to the misinformation that surrounds the subject.

In both cases, an individual’s worldview is a key determinant of the way he or she will process information, with research demonstrating that conservatives and liberals are likely to believe in the narratives that align with their worldview. With regard to the Iraq War, called for by a Republican president, an aggregate of poll data showed that 61% of Republicans and 18% of Democrats believed WMDs existed in Iraq before the US invasion. In the case of climate change, Lewandosky point out that although 97% of climate scientists agree that the globe is warming and human activity is a cause, misinformation abounds. One study found that 20% of those asked in a US survey felt climate change was a hoax.

The authors point out that people are predisposed “to believe what they hear or read because speakers are assumed to be truthful,” and once belief in a certain argument takes hold it can be hard to correct, even if people are presented with correct information. This is best illustrated by the worldview backfire effect, which occurs when people who believe in misinformation are presented with the actual facts, yet subsequently believe more strongly in the misinformation. The authors hope that an understanding of the psychological processes surrounding the belief in and perpetuation of misinformation will help refute incorrect information and thereby help avoid conflict. Throughout their discussion, they identified several ways adherence to one’s worldview can be lessened and belief in misinformation can be corrected: by reframing the narrative, inducing skepticism of the message’s source, correction of misinformation by the media, and through self-affirmation.

*Aeschylus as cited by Lewandosky et al. (2013)


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