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Why we are so susceptible to misinformation

Social media plays a major role in shaping current American political discourse. During a Senate hearing Wednesday, executives from leading online platforms were criticized by lawmakers for their companies’ records on limiting the spread of misinformation. William Brangham explores how that misinformation can be easily transmitted online -- and how it can influence voters’ thinking.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's dive deeper into concerns around spreading misinformation, its consequences, and securing our votes.

    Some of the most pointed attacks during today's Senate hearing included examples of how the leading social media platforms have been used to spread misinformation.

    William Brangham explores just how that misinformation can be transmitted easily by American voters and influence thinking.

    Afterwards, he has an interview with one of the top officials from the Department of Homeland Security.

  • William Brangham:

    Have you heard that voter fraud is rampant in the u.s? Well, it isn't. Or that Bill Gates is going to microchip Americans using the COVID-19 vaccine? That's also false. Or that President Trump didn't really have the coronavirus? Wrong. He did.

    None of these are true, but they have been read and spread by millions, and they represent just drops in a vast ocean of misinformation.

  • Woman:

    Good morning, everybody. Have a busy day.

  • William Brangham:

    It's become such a pervasive problem that a small industry of fact-checkers, like the people here at PolitiFact, is working overtime to debunk them.

  • Woman:

    Amy has a good fact-check on whether Biden is a socialist or supports socialist policies.

  • William Brangham:

    All the major social media platforms are trying to flag false or misleading claims posted on their sites.

    There are online courses teaching citizens how to distinguish truth from fiction.

  • Woman:

    And try to think what your inherent biases or lenses might be that are causing you to see news in a certain way.

  • William Brangham:

    We sat in on one for senior citizens run by a group called Senior Planet.

  • Woman:

    So, it really impacts everybody when people disseminate fake news.

  • Dannagal Young:

    The people who are susceptible to misinformation includes anyone who has a preexisting opinion about anything, so anyone.

  • William Brangham:

    Dannagal Young of the University of Delaware studies misinformation. She says the pandemic has only made it worse.

  • Dannagal Young:

    When you think about this in terms of evolutionary psychology, we are hard-wired for survival, especially when we are under conditions that mimic fear and threat.

    So, you know if you are encountering a tiger in the jungle or something, you're not going to do a slow pro/con list of the different courses of action that you might take. Instead, you're actually just going to make a decision quickly based on emotions and intuition. And the person who writes the pro/con list will be eaten by the tiger.

  • William Brangham:

    Do you suspect that there's some foul play going on there?

    On the issue of the pandemic, retired veteran Kell Bales from Wisconsin has real questions about whether the official coronavirus death toll is accurate.

  • Kell Bales:

    I feel strongly that there's a lot of political motivation behind a lot of these kind of numbers being pushed out there.

  • William Brangham:

    Bales is an ordained pastor and a supporter of President Trump. In his media ecosystem, which is largely conservative voices, anything but a Trump win would be evidence of foul play.

  • Kell Bales:

    If Biden were to win the presidency, seems to be clear, pretty clear evidence of fraud.

    We're all skewed, right? My particular Facebook feed is — it's blown up with conservative, with like-minded individuals. We're all going to do that. We're going to surround ourselves with circles of like believers, like thinkers.

  • Arlene Lehew:

    I don't listen to any regular TV news, because it's not telling everything out there.

  • William Brangham:

    Arlene Lehew lives in The Villages, in Florida. It's a large retirement community. She's a grandmother and enjoys riding motorcycles.

  • Arlene Lehew:

    I go online to Newsmax, Parler. I follow Dan Bongino.

  • William Brangham:

    So those are all fairly, what people would argue are conservative news sites, or from a right perspective.

  • Arlene Lehew:

    Yes, I don't agree with that. I just feel it's truthful. I don't — I don't know if it's conservative or not.

    I think people that are on the Democratic side — and I used to be a Democrat. So, people that are on the Democratic side don't really want to hear the truth sometimes.

  • William Brangham:

    Misinformation is nothing new, of course.

    Abe Lincoln back there, as with every other president, has been tarred with all sorts of lies and untruths. The difference is, is that, back then, the misinformation could only travel as fast as the railroads could take it. Nowadays, all you need is a few seconds, and this, and it's everywhere.

    Kell Bales shares posts to his Facebook page, like this video of President Trump falsely alleging that there's widespread fraud with mail-in ballots.

  • President Donald Trump:

    This election will be the most rigged election in history.

  • William Brangham:

    When you look at all these organizations that say that there might be incredibly rare instances of people casting votes illegally, but it's it's 0.00000-something percent of votes cast, that doesn't give you any comfort?

  • Kell Bales:

    Again, if we look at the numbers, if that's truly the number out there — I will have to, again, do my own research — I mean, I'm sure there are independent organizations out there doing the research. And that's great. I applaud them for it.

    But, ultimately, again, it's that — my personal gut-check.

  • Arlene Lehew:

    They found a lot of ballots like in the ocean and trunks and garbage cans. Dead people are getting ballots. Animals are getting ballots. My friend got one from a dog down the street. His dog's name is Charlie. He got a ballot.

  • William Brangham:

    His dog was mailed a ballot?

  • Arlene Lehew:

    Yes. Well, his name's Charlie, the dog. So, it was Charlie whatever their last name is, and he got a ballot.

  • William Brangham:

    It may sound preposterous. And, of course, pets can't vote.

    But, often, misinformation starts with a kernel of truth. One voting group did mistakenly mail a registration form to a deceased cat in Atlanta.

    But Dannagal Young says fact-checking alone isn't likely to address this ocean of misinformation.

  • Dannagal Young:

    If you can connect on the very needs and desires that are driving people to hold these beliefs in the first place, right, create those connections, that's where we create an inroad.

    It's hard, because we're asking you to have empathy for individuals who might be holding beliefs that could undermine your own freedom or undermine certain aspects of social justice. But this — if the goal is to correct misperceptions and — then those relationships have to come first.

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