Thursday, June 29, 2017

Encoding and Misinformation

I know I could break you down
But what good would it do
I could surely never know
That what you say is true
--Information Society

In the past, we have discussed research in strategic information transmission and findings suggesting that information consumers can be fooled into believing falsehoods. Such research helps explain why belief in 'fake news' increases with intensity of media coverage.

Ecker et al. (2011) demonstrated the influence of encoding on the retention of misinformation in the face of subsequent retractions. Encoding can be viewed as the extent to which information is admitted to the mind and judged to be true at the outset. Intensity of encoding can be increased in various ways. In their experiment, the researchers studied the effects of both message repetition and changes in cognitive load (i.e., distractions) on encoding and subsequent retractions of falsehoods.

Their essential findings were that the stronger the misinformation encoding the stronger the retention--even in the face of subsequent retractions that admitted that the information was false.

For those seeking to spread misinformation, the implications are clear. Broadcast your lies as frequently and as compelling as possible at the outset. Even if you are subsequently forced to issue a public retraction and admit your lies, many will still believe you.

Obviously, purveyors of fake news and other charlatans have already figured this out.


Ecker, U.K.H., Lewandowsky, S., Swire, B., Chang, D., (2011). Correcting false information in memory: Manipulating the strength of encoding and its retraction. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18: 570-578.

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