Who Shares Political Misinformation?
Sunday, August 27th, 2023
This week’s core story is about: Who shares political misinformation.
KNEAD TO KNOW
A new update published by the World Health Organization shows COVID cases over the last 28-day period (July 24 to August 20) jumped 63% compared to the previous four weeks, though deaths declined by 48%. In the U.S., new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows COVID hospitalizations have risen for seven consecutive weeks, jumping 22% in the most recent week (August 6 to August 12). The CDC also published a new risk assessment about the new BA.2.86 variant, which the agency believes could be more capable of causing infections in previously vaccinated people.
New data from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows California is free of extreme drought conditions for the first time in three years. The improved conditions are a combination of several things, including winter storms fueled by “atmospheric rivers” dumping heavy rain and snow across the state, and the storm conditions brought on last weekend by Hurricane Hilary as it moved northward from the coast of Mexico.
A new study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco developed a brain-computer interface that enabled a paralyzed woman to “talk” again through a digital avatar. The researchers say the work represents the first time speech or facial expressions have been synthesized from brain signals, and brings scientists one step closer to a Food and Drug Administration-approved system restoring communication through thought for paralyzed patients. Watch a video of the breakthrough. (5 min)
A new study by researchers at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology fully sequenced the human Y chromosome for the first time. The researchers say the work could help diagnose known conditions related to genes in the Y chromosome (which typically determines male sex), and shed light on new genes and their functions. Study co-author Justin Zook said the difficulty analyzing the Y chromosome to this point means scientists “may not even know yet just how important the Y chromosome is.”
Who Shares Political Misinformation?
When politicians lie, it’s usually to win an election or come out on top of an issue. When random people online do it, it seems to be more about sowing discord and “trolling” than any identifiable objective.
So, what does the research say about what motivates certain people to share political misinformation? And how are we preparing for Election Day 2024 and beyond?
Political misinformation was on full display at this week’s Republican primary debate, during which several candidates confidently shared some form of misinformation or disinformation in an attempt to sway the party’s base.
The most condemnable examples unsurprisingly involved the biggest political issues, like climate change and abortion.
Vivek Ramaswamy, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur turned hopeful politician, bizarrely claimed “the climate change agenda is a hoax,” rightfully earning “boos” from the crowd. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also misrepresented reality when he said Democrats want to “allow abortion all the way up to the moment of birth,” a sentiment South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott echoed when he accused traditionally Democratic states “like California, New York, and Illinois” of having “on-demand abortion up until the day of birth” (none of the three states allow that).
We’ll tackle these quickly because it doesn’t take much effort.
First, climate change is real. Whether it scores political points to lie about it to Republican voters or not, it is.
Second, DeSantis and Scott are intentionally muddling the issue and Democrats’ stance on abortions at a late stage of pregnancy. While it’s true that seven states have no limit on abortion, experts say only a very small percentage (around 1%) of abortions happen in the third trimester (after about 26 weeks of pregnancy), and they do not happen at the moment of birth.
Abortions in the third trimester are likely related to medical issues, some of which can’t even be discovered until after 20 weeks. As then-Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg said during a 2019 Fox News town hall, notions about so-called “late-term abortions” are nothing more than political talking points designed to stoke outrage, and, in reality, an abortion at such a late stage suggests the mother wanted to keep the pregnancy anyways.
It’s easy to understand why Ramaswamy, DeSantis, and Scott would be comfortable stretching the truth; they're playing politics in an attempt to win their party’s nomination or become the running mate of the person they lose to. For them, we have to assume the political gain is worth the moral trade-off of lying or misrepresenting your opponents.
But how about others? Why do some people with seemingly nothing to gain knowingly share misinformation? New research offers some interesting answers.
What the research says:
A new study by researchers at the University of Miami surveyed Americans about whether they share political information on social media that they believe could be false (i.e., misinformation; distinct from disinformation, which is the sharing of information one knows to be false), finding 14% of U.S. adults admit to doing so.
The study also found respondents who reported purposefully sharing political misinformation were more likely to state a desire to run for office than people who don’t knowingly share political misinformation. They were also more likely to believe they were indeed qualified to be a candidate.
Littrell, et al. (2023)
Beyond aspirations for public office, the study found spreading political misinformation was positively associated with support for political violence, civil disobedience, and protests, while it was weakly associated with attending political meetings, contacting elected representatives, or staying informed about politics. According to the authors, taken together, the findings suggest people who share political misinformation on social media are “more likely to be politically active and efficacious in certain aggressive ways, while simultaneously being less likely to participate in more benign or arguably positive ways.”
Respondents who reported sharing political misinformation were also more likely to express support for extremist groups like QAnon, the Proud Boys, and White Nationalists, coinciding with previous studies linking the groups to the spread of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories.
Perhaps most troubling, the study also found people who share political misinformation tend to have “antisocial characteristics,” reporting higher levels of a “need for chaos,” so-called “dark tetrad” personality traits (a combination of narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism), paranoia, dogmatism, and argumentativeness. They were also more likely to get their news from “fringe social media sources,” and say that posting content on social media “gives them a greater feeling of power and control and allows them to express themselves more freely.”
The researchers also found religiosity positively predicted sharing political misinformation, though they found no significant association between sharing misinformation and one’s political identity, or the strength of their partisan or ideological views.
The work sheds light on specific personality and attitude characteristics that motivate sharing political misinformation, and offers future directions for interventions, including ones focused on minimizing or eliminating the perceived incentives of sharing misinformation (e.g., feelings of power, satisfaction, causing chaos, or “trolling”).
The work also suggests interventions aimed at people who share misinformation should make a distinction between people who do it both knowingly and unknowingly, since people who knowingly share misinformation likely won’t be moved by accuracy nudges or attempts to correct falsehoods.
Why it matters:
Experts have been sounding the alarm about the impact of political mis- and disinformation in the 2024 election and beyond, and early instances of deepfake audio in political advertising have already caused issues.
@DeSantisWarRoom on Twitter/X
It’s such a concern that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) last week opened public comment on a proposal to prohibit deepfake content in political ads, seeking input on whether the agency should add “deliberately deceptive” AI-generated ads to an existing law against fraudulent misrepresentations in campaign communications.
Whether the proposal becomes law remains to be seen; lawmakers on each side of the aisle have expressed concern about deepfake political ads, but note the FEC may lack the authority to regulate advertising.
No matter what happens, experts are clearly concerned about the role of political misinformation as we move toward Election Day 2024, though it’ll likely be an issue for years to come.
We saw it during the COVID pandemic, when experts like Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx were vilified by Republican politicians and right-wing media for trying to protect people during the deadliest pandemic in our country’s history, and more than 1 million Americans eventually paid the price.
It’s an issue all of us should care about (The Bagel cares so deeply about misinformation that it’s in our mission statement: “To combat misinformation through scholarship and research”), and one that will take all of us to conquer.
As Dr. Fauci once said, “The way to counter misinformation and disinformation is by flooding the system with correct information.” Let’s all flood the system.
More Sedentary Time During Childhood Could Lead to Heart Damage in Adulthood
A new study presented this week at the European Society of Cardiology’s Congress 2023 in Amsterdam found increased sedentary time during childhood is associated with an increase in the mass of the heart’s left ventricle, potentially increasing the likelihood of heart attack and stroke in adulthood. The research was conducted as part of the Children of the 90s study at the University of Bristol in the U.K., which has tracked more than 14,000 children born between 1991 and 1992 for over two decades.
The study included 766 girls and boys who wore an activity tracker for seven days at ages 11, 15, and 24, finding sedentary time increased by an average of 169 minutes (around 2.8 hours) a day between childhood and young adulthood.
The team found each single minute of increased sedentary time from age 11 to 24 was associated with a 0.004 g/m2.7 increase in left ventricular mass. Across 169 minutes, that’s equivalent to a 3 gram per day increase. Previous studies have found a similar increase in left ventricular mass is associated with increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and death.
The Taliban Is Killing and Torturing Hundreds of Former Afghan Government Officials and Troops
A new report by the U.N. Assistant Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) details “credible reports” of serious human rights violations by the country’s Taliban authorities since its takeover in August 2021, including at least 800 instances of extrajudicial killings (218 recorded instances), forced disappearances (14), torture and ill-treatment (144), and arbitrary arrests and detentions (424) of people affiliated with the former democratically elected administration.
“UNAMA’s report presents a sobering picture of the treatment of individuals affiliated with the former government and security forces of Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover of the country,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk. “Even more so, given they were assured that they would [not be] targeted, it is a betrayal of the people’s trust.”
The report calls on the de facto Taliban authorities to honor its earlier promise of “general amnesty” for former Afghan government officials and to uphold its legal obligations under international human rights law.
Barnacles May Help Locate Lost Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370
A new study by researchers at the University of South Florida extracted ocean temperature records from the shells of barnacles attached to debris from the missing 2014 Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 that the team believes can be used to pinpoint the location of the lost plane.
The team combined temperature data with oceanographic modeling to partially construct the debris’ drift path, potentially revealing the location of the plane if the method is applied to the largest barnacles that colonized the wreckage shortly after the crash.
As a reminder, MH370 went missing on March 8, 2014, presumably killing all 239 souls on board the aircraft. The search for the plane spanned thousands of miles across the Indian Ocean and was suspended in January 2017.
392 - The number of “election intimidation” bills introduced across 46 U.S. states since 2021, according to a new report by PEN America. PEN considers legislation an “election intimidation bill” when it contains at least one “election intimidation provision,” defined as “specific and recurring legal mechanisms with the foreseeable effect of chilling expression in educational settings,” including bills targeting LGBTQ+ students. All but 15 of the bills have been “sponsored exclusively by Republicans,” according to the report.
545% - The increased odds that someone who describes themselves as "very happily married" will also say they are "very happy" with their life, compared to those who are unmarried or less satisfied in their marriages. That's according to a forthcoming book by sociologist Brad Wilcox called Get Married, which examines the differences in happiness between married and unmarried people.
22 - The minimum number of people required to start a viable colony on Mars, according to a new study posted on the preprint server arXiv by researchers at George Mason University. The findings are significantly below previous estimates of 110 people. Reminder: preprint studies have yet to be peer reviewed and accepted for publication by an academic journal.
Long Video. Watch Vanishing Oasis, winner of the Yale Environment 360 Film Contest. The film documents the uncertain fate of millions of animals that rely on Utah’s Great Salt Lake. (10 min)
Short Video. Learn how airplane legroom got so tight. (9 min)
Fun Video. Meet Karen Jacobsen, the voice behind your GPS. (3 min)
Good Read. Will scientists ever discover a “theory of everything”? (1,377 words; 7 min)
Neat List. See 10 stunning photos from the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower earlier this month.
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Written by Ryan Wittler