Heuristics (...why we're susceptible to disinformation)

Updated: Jun 14

simulation of a COVID-19 viral spore
COVID-19 (via FDA website)

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation, or mistaken information, and disinformation, intentionally falsified information, became increasingly pervasive. Conspiracy theories saturated corners of the internet, wholly emerging into both political discourse and kitchen-table gossip. From outlandish claims that 5G cell phone towers spurred the pandemic to overtly racist theories that the Chinese government leaked the virus, misinformation and disinformation spread much like a virus itself.

I suppose I am wary of using too many puns, but I am tempted to emphasize the newfound prominence the adjective “viral” has assumed in American vernacular. During the pandemic, viral posts have spread misinformation and disinformation, reaching new audiences. All the while, the COVID-19 pandemic has exemplified the word’s biological origin—virus. To continue with this drawn-out pun, I will ask one question: Why are we susceptible to misinformation and disinformation?

Last May amidst the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I grappled with the same question. At the time, I was taking an introductory psychology course, and I chose to research that very question. I sifted through research literature, deciphering what I could from studies, data, and scientific jargon. I read all sorts of research that begged all sorts of questions. Nevertheless, one word in particular kept appearing: heuristic.

Heuristics are, to be concise, mental short-cuts. We use them in our everyday life to make quick, effortless decisions. And while oftentimes, heuristics are not misleading, they do make us susceptible to false information. For example, confirmation bias is a commonly known heuristic. Confirmation bias posits that we are more likely to believe information that confirms our worldview. Another pertinent heuristic is the availability heuristic. The availability heuristic skews us towards information that we can more readily recall. In part, if a particular (viral) post or theory dominates our social media feed, for example, we are more willing to believe its information.

rectangle with words heuristic and mental shortcuts
Part of a poster campaign made for class

I believe that heuristics make us susceptible to misinformation and disinformation because they replace critical thinking.

Approximately one year ago, I asked the question, why are we susceptible to misinformation and disinformation? And in all honesty, I am still not content with heuristics as an answer. To be more accurate, I am not content with the question I asked. Surely, heuristics make us susceptible to misinformation and disinformation, but I am cautious about situating my question solely around the consumers of media. I feel as though I must also address the producers of media that contribute to the viral spread of false information. My thinking around the topic of falsified information is truly unfinished, and since researching heuristics in 2020, my thoughts have evolved as I continue to learn more.

Ultimately, the viral spread of misinformation and disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic foregrounded, for me, the importance of Media Literacy. Not only does Media Literacy encourage critical thinking, overcoming heuristics, but it also strives to hold the producers of media accountable.

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