Fighting Bad Information With Good

Fascinating article in the Washington Post about the difficulty of combating myths with accurate information:

The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.

This phenomenon may help explain why large numbers of Americans incorrectly think that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in planning the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Iraqi. While these beliefs likely arose because Bush administration officials have repeatedly tried to connect Iraq with Sept. 11, the experiments suggest that intelligence reports and other efforts to debunk this account may in fact help keep it alive.

Similarly, many in the Arab world are convinced that the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 was not the work of Arab terrorists but was a controlled demolition; that 4,000 Jews working there had been warned to stay home that day; and that the Pentagon was struck by a missile rather than a plane.

Those notions remain widespread even though the federal government now runs Web sites in seven languages to challenge them. Karen Hughes, who runs the Bush administration’s campaign to win hearts and minds in the fight against terrorism, recently painted a glowing report of the "digital outreach" teams working to counter misinformation and myths by challenging those ideas on Arabic blogs.

A report last year by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, however, found that the number of Muslims worldwide who do not believe that Arabs carried out the Sept. 11 attacks is soaring — to 59 percent of Turks and Egyptians, 65 percent of Indonesians, 53 percent of Jordanians, 41 percent of Pakistanis and even 56 percent of British Muslims.

Research on the difficulty of debunking myths has not been specifically tested on beliefs about Sept. 11 conspiracies or the Iraq war. But because the experiments illuminate basic properties of the human mind, psychologists such as Schwarz say the same phenomenon is probably implicated in the spread and persistence of a variety of political and social myths.

The research does not absolve those who are responsible for promoting myths in the first place. What the psychological studies highlight, however, is the potential paradox in trying to fight bad information with good information.

(hat tip RSizzle)

3 comments on “Fighting Bad Information With Good
  • The more authority figures try to put down a myth, the more credence it seems to add to the myth – at least in some people’s heads. There seems to be a need to develop true “myths” to combat these fallacies. It seems to be about how you tell the story, not what the story is.

  • I think Willy here has a point about ‘how you tell the story’ not ‘what it is’.

    I would add another dimension: you may have to tell the story for a long time, again and again.

    The underlying assumption is of course of some basic cognition in the audience which is a very BIG assumption indeed.

  • There must be some strategy to change the myth, even if research seems to indicate that repudiating the myth directly only seems to give it more energy.

    There must be some way to drain it of its power. Perhaps merely questioning it, as opposed to outright confrontation. Raising questions that lead to possibly different interpretations may be one way.

    Then again, perhaps only time does that…

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