The Nation: Author of "A Matter of Fact" Jess Berentson-Shaw
On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd interviews author of "A Matter of Fact" Jess Berentson-Shaw
Berentson-Shaw describes misinformation as ‘sticky’. She
says once information embeds, its difficult to remove it
from people. "What we do know is simply negating it, so, for
example, myth-busting, isn’t a particularly effective way
to remove a well-embedded belief."
• She says the issues of free speech and misinformation are being 'conflated' and the the big issue is misinformation. She says Canadian speakers Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern have been "very clever at making a free-speech argument for what is essentially a misinformation argument."
• She says if we want an independent voice in the role of the PM's science advisor "then possibly we need to talk about an alternative system – a little bit like the environmental advisor."
Simon Shepherd: The phrase fake news might've been popularised recently by a certain US president, but the phenomenon is nothing new. But we are now exposed to much more information and misinformation than ever before and it's getting harder to tell the difference. Researcher Jess Berentson-Shaw's written a new book on the topic, called "a Matter of Fact". I began by asking her how you develop the skills necessary to distinguish what's fact and what's fake.
Jess Berentson-Shaw: You know, that’s a really good question, because I think as we have democratised the availability of information, we haven’t democratised the skills to assess what information is good information.
Simon Shepherd: What do you mean by democratise those skills?
That means that what was previously available to us to assess whether information was trustworthy or reliable – we used to do it through relationships. Like if we went to our doctor, and we trusted our doctor to have good information. And now, you or I, we go on the Internet, we Google – it’s impossible for us to know if the study that we see on vaccinations is a good quality study or a bad quality study. So while we can get all the information that we need, we don’t know if it’s good information or not.
All right. And you’ve said in your book that this misinformation is ‘sticky’. So we’ve seen it in everything, like conspiracies about moon landings and vaccinations being linked to autism. So how can you persuade someone that something they believe isn’t actually true?
Well, it’s really hard, and this is the problem that once misinformation embeds, it’s very difficult to remove it from people. What we do know is simply negating it, so, for example, myth-busting, isn’t a particularly effective way to remove a well-embedded belief. There is some suggestion that the best way to actually deal with it is to stop it from getting out there in the first place, and that’s a really important point to make about how much misinformation is available.
Look, there were just two points there. So if you’re saying if you present someone with the facts, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to sway them.
No, not at all.
And is that frustrating for a scientist?
I think for a lot of people who work with knowledge transference science, it’s really frustrating. We know what good information is, and we have a really deeply held belief that it should be used to improve the way that people’s lives are and it’s ignored or, even worse, bad information – like, for example, with meth testing – is used to develop policy.
So what is the trick to presenting facts on a controversial issue like that?
It’s not simple. One of the things which we talk about is the importance of being able to tap into the values that are important to people. What we know is that logic comes very late in the process. When people get new information, what they first filter it through is, ‘Does this matter to me?’ and ‘Does it fit with my beliefs that I already have?’ So one of the things that we can do is think about what are the helpful values at the base of this information. So an example of that is climate change. Doing something about climate change is a really important activity for human survival. So we need to talk about that mattering and looking after the climate is mattering and looking after each other is mattering. That’s one way to start engaging with people’s values before we talk about the facts.
You also talk about something called ‘pre-bunking’. What is pre-bunking?
So pre-bunking is this idea that before people are exposed to bad information, we actually warn them that they may be exposed to poor information, say, in the vaccinations space and the motivations of people.
Okay. So what about the fact that… Do you outline the bad information and then say it’s wrong? Or do you just ignore it at all?
If you’re pre-bunking, so if you think that people haven’t been exposed to poor information, which in this day and age is pretty unlikely given how much information and how available it is. But actually, what the research suggests is it’s actually better not to engage with bad information at all. So – and this is a classic communications technique in lots of ways – create your own story about the good information.
So in terms of information, the way the internet works, we end up with information that reflects our existing values, beliefs and the way we search for things. So how do you get yourself out of the echo chamber of your own belief system?
Yeah, and that is really difficult, isn’t it – the idea that we need to think about our own bias and slow down. I think that individual behaviour change in that scenario is quite difficult for people to do. Asking people to actively step outside their own bias is tricky. I think that people with skin in the information game, that should be one of our core skills that we’re taught. I think for everybody else, I think there are things we need to think about structurally speaking in order to help reduce the exposure of misinformation.
Okay. That’s hard to do in this current environment. The term ‘alternative facts’ was coined by Kellyanne Conway, part of the Trump Administration. Has Trump’s administration made it easier for people to dismiss things they don’t like as ‘fake news’?
I think it’s given it a name. We’ve always done it, though. Misinformation is not new. Historically, we’ve been doing this for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The tools and the digital media tools that we have allow that misinformation to be manipulated more easily and spread more easily. So that’s a real challenge to us.
There’s no filters. There’s no relationships based on this. It’s a free-for-all.
Yeah. And there are no editors in between, say, me and poor information or no medical professionals or people who we would traditionally think of experts. But I think there is a really big question around who are experts and whether expertise is what we should be relying on in terms of getting people to believe information anymore. The old ways of saying ‘I’m an expert, listen to me’ just don’t apply anymore.
Okay. Well, speaking of alternate facts, what we’ve just mentioned, the right to free speech has been a big argument at the moment. Is the right to free speech a defence for the deliberate spreading of misinformation?
I think these two things in New Zealand certainly are perhaps being conflated. I think the bigger issue, actually, is the spread of misinformation. And that misinformation is so powerful, it has an advantage over good information that we need to be thinking very carefully about what is the platform we’re giving to misinformation.
I’m thinking about the recent visit by the alt-right Canadian speakers Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern. They say their views were based on science and they’re putting on a scientific rationale. So how do you fight that?
Yeah, and that’s tricky. They’ve been very clever at making a free-speech argument for what is essentially a misinformation argument. The views that they have were both racist and sexist, which we know are based on poor information. They’ve been very clever in manipulating people’s fears that if we don’t listen to that, that we are at risk of less free speech.
So what do you do with people like that? Do you engage them, or do you ignore them?
I think there’s a couple of things we can do. There’s a question about the way in which we give them a platform allows that information to be repeated, and that is problematic. What we know is that the more information is repeated, regardless of where it comes from, the easier it is for people to believe. We’re not very good at remembering the sources of information. So I think there are some ethical questions about the platforms which people like that have. I think that it is important to address the misinformation, but perhaps head-on – the research suggests – isn’t as useful, and that we need to amplify correct stories about things like the value of Maori culture and the value of equality and fairness between genders.
But it’s very hard to overcome ingrained negative perceptions, isn’t it?
It’s very, very difficult. So you hear something – people talk about the backfire effect. And this is when if we directly challenge people’s incorrect beliefs, that they sort of double down on it. It depends somewhat on the issue that you’re talking about and how strongly people believe it, but, yeah.
You mentioned before that maybe we shouldn’t believe the experts as we used to. How important is it if I’m being given a message by somebody that I identify with someone who’s giving me that message?
Yeah, really important actually. It’s perhaps not as simple as we assume it to be. It’s much more about, ‘Can I see that you and I share values?’ If I can see that you and I share values, then I’m much more likely to listen to what you say and perceive that you have expertise in the area.
All right. The Prime Minister has a science advisor who can be terminated at the will of the Prime Minister. Are they independent enough in their current role?
I think it depends on what the role of that science advisor is, and it’s not particularly clear at the moment. Are they simply about amplifying the benefits of science, or are they there to provide an independent voice about what works in research? And I think if we want an independent voice, then possibly we need to talk about an alternative system – a little bit like the environmental advisor. And perhaps like the Children’s Commissioner as well. So I think because they are not necessarily there for very clear independent advice reasons, then it is possible that that information might not be listened to, as Peter Gluckman himself said when he talked about the meth testing, that he was pushed back on it.
That’s a clear example of where he wasn’t listened to. Okay, thank you very much for your time, Jess Berentson-Shaw.