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The Psychology of (Dis)information: Case Studies and Implications

Megan McBrideHeather WoltersKaia HaneyWilliam RosenauWith contributions by Neil Carey and Kasey Stricklin
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The absorption and spread of disinformation is a pervasive phenomenon across a wide variety of topics on virtually every social media network. The avalanche of COVID-19 disinformation that has been produced over the last 18 months typifies the prevalence of disinformation in the modern world. In fact, a 2018 MIT study of Twitter data found that disinformation was more successful than truth on social media by almost every known metric; it spread “significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.”

Further, the absorption and spread of disinformation is a growing national security concern. Most of our adversaries recognize that controlling the information space, including domestic and international narratives, promotes their national interests. For example, in 2013, the Russian chief of the General Staff, Valeriy Gerasimov, stated that the development of information weapons had the ability to reduce an adversary’s combat potential. Also, in 2013, Chinese president Xi Jinping stated that the use of innovative techniques to spread narratives positive for China, and promoting the Chinese view globally, was a priority.

Although the use of information operations is not a new phenomenon—various actors have used them throughout history for a range of objectives—the connectivity that characterizes the world today allows both information and disinformation to spread faster and with a much greater reach. The use of disinformation has led directly to real-world events and violence. It can have a demonstrable effect on a recipient’s behavior, and can lead its promulgators to achieve some goals simply through its existence, regardless of its believability.

Recognizing that disinformation’s primary effect is on the mind, this report describes four psychological mechanisms that are associated with the absorption and spread of disinformation. It then connects five, recent, real-world examples of disinformation in which absorption and spread benefited from the psychological mechanisms described. Finally, it describes possible ways the Department of Defense (DOD) can mitigate the absorption and spread of disinformation among US servicemembers by focusing on the psychological mechanisms that contribute to its promulgation. 

Psychological mechanisms associated with disinformation spread 

This report describes four key psychological mechanisms and explains how each one contributes to the absorption and spread of disinformation:

  • Initial information processing: Our mental “processing capacity” is limited; we simply cannot deeply attend to all new information we encounter. Our brains take mental shortcuts to incorporating new information, and those shortcuts can open us up to mistakes. To the extent that we do not process information as thoroughly as we should, we can construe disinformation as true information.
  • Cognitive dissonance: Cognitive dissonance describes the discomfort we feel when we are confronted with two competing ideas and wish to reduce that discomfort. If disinformation supports our initial beliefs or creates less dissonance than true information, we are more likely to believe the disinformation.
  • Influence of group membership, beliefs, and novelty (the GBN model): Not all information is equally valuable to individuals. Our group memberships, our beliefs, and the uniqueness of the information influence whether we absorb and share disinformation. We are more likely to share information with people we consider members of our group, when we believe the information is true, and when it is novel or urgent. If disinformation comes from a group member with whom we identify, is consistent with our beliefs, or is new information for us, we are more likely to share it.
  • Role of emotion and arousal in our sharing of disinformation: Just as not all information is equally valuable, not all information affects us the same way. Research demonstrates that we pay more attention to information that makes us feel positively (i.e., good) or that arouses us to act. Given that disinformation is, by definition, created by someone, it is more likely to be absorbed and shared if it is constructed to be emotional and arousing.

A critical takeaway from the identification of these mechanisms is that they are not unique to absorbing and spreading disinformation. These same mechanisms are key to absorbing and spreading true information as well. Thus, at an individual level, it  appears that disinformation is absorbed and spread through normal, routine, and adaptive mechanisms, which malign actors can exploit and manipulate for their own objectives.

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DISTRIBUTION STATEMENT A. Approved for public release: distribution unlimited

Details

  • Pages: 72
  • Document Number: DRM-2021-U-030881-Final
  • Publication Date: 10/1/2021