Misinformation in a Mad, Mad World

Contrary to what Howard Beale says in “Network” (1976) you do not, in fact, have to get mad.

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By Christopher Brennan

We often think of the spread of misinformation as happening solely on the internet, on a social network or messaging service. But for each piece of falsehood that is accepted as truth, there is a person looking at their computer or phone, and new research suggests that how they are feeling may play a role in how its received.

This week I spoke to Dr. Michael Greenstein, a psychology researcher at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, about a recent paper of his at the intersection of memory, anger and misinformation.

Dr. Greenstein’s paper, which I first came across in this article from Elemental, is not directly related to the world of misinformation in news, though is interesting to consider as division has led to calls to “lower the temperature” online and off.

Part of the research design was to have the experimenters make the participants, undergraduate students getting course credit, angry through rudeness, time-wasting tasks and other tactics. This resulted in a certain subset of the students who according to the scientist “ran the gamut from people who were, I’d say moderately frustrated. Then we had some people who were seething with rage.”

“Anger is a very social emotion. You are angry because you have goals that are getting interrupted or people or or things around you are doing things that aren’t meshing is what you want … The idea here is that anger can be directed, and we wanted the anger to be directed in a social manner rather than in something where like the computer is breaking,” Greenstein said.

The participants watched a movie, then answered multiple sets of questions about it, including a set that included misinformation about the film, such as events that did not happen. After another round of “anger-induction” for some students, they were given another test to determine how much they could differentiate between what really happened and the misinformation.

Greenstein and his team’s findings, controlled for things like baseline anger of a person and the general knowledge of what happened in the film, include that those in the anger group had a significant higher likelihood of accepting the misinformation. They were also more confident in their responses, despite the fact that confidence usually in memory studies is connected to accuracy.

“Our running hypothesis for what’s going on here is that anger, as a social emotion, it serves to speed up processing. The idea here is when you’re angry you need to be able to make decisions, very quickly,” he said.

“Because of this idea of needing to respond quickly, our hypothesis is that what anger is doing is it’s kind of leading to the normal processes faster. If you’re in the misinformation business right now it’s really easy to misinform people. What anger is doing is not making you do new things.  Taking all those processes that already went through misinformation and saying ‘Go through it faster. Okay we’ve got it. Let’s just skip the ethical thinking and say yes.’”

While Greenstein’s research often touches on criminal justice such as the role of memory in police lineups, his insight sort of pairs with previous research on misinformation in news, such as Lisa Fazio at Vanderbilt suggesting that taking a “pause” before sharing is important.

The role of anger is also part of a broader discussion about social media, where companies have been criticized for monetizing on rage because of its connection to engagement and clicks, rather than focusing on other metrics (such as the Deepnews quality score) that aim to show people content with value or insight. 

An important distinction is that the anger being talked about here is temporary anger, rather than the idea of being an long-term “angry person” or the nihilistic personality trait that some researchers have called “Need for Chaos.” Anger can come, in varying degrees, from many triggers (such as those flitting through your feed) and impact you.

“That’s one of the more interesting aspects of this. [The effect of anger] can happen anytime. It doesn’t have to happen in the specific instance of memory for news or specific issues of memory for movies,” Greenstein said.“What we’re finding is that really anytime you’re experiencing this type of anger, it doesn’t have to be anger directed at any particular thing, it could be anger that’s completely incidental to what you’re doing, you could be angry because you just stubbed your toe, and it makes you more susceptible to misinformation.”