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How people-power can tackle misinformation
Given misinformation is often shaped by the social nature of belief, we examine the way collective action can be used to reach positive outcomes
We have been reviewing the way we form our beliefs about the world on the range of pressing issue we face, from climate change and sustainability to vaccination and COVID safety. There are so many complex problems which involve a huge amount of expertise to fully understand, we inevitably rely on others to help us.
We have looked at the explanation that people take a stance based on their political allegiances (one of the most common explanations) might be part of the answer, but it is far from the full story. We then jumped into looking more closely at the social nature of belief and the way in which the environment can become ‘epistemically polluted’ as the cues that people use to make their decisions get manipulated.
Given it seems that beliefs have a strong social component, what does this mean for the way we support people to make effective decisions in the world and address the issue of misinformation? One of the answers might be to reinforce the institutions that people reference when trying to understand what is true and support the reputation of these institutions and give them resources to better engage with people. Ipsos data suggests that the notion that trust in institutions is eroding has been over-stated, so this certainly has something to recommend it.
However, there is perhaps also a case to question whether the variety of institutions that we have historically looked to are actually best placed to engage with people – is there a sense in which we might over-rely on them at the expense of other approaches?
We consider that there is a case to be made for empowering people to have open, informed and considered dialogues between each other on the key issues that we face today. Indeed, we see this ‘grass-roots’ (social) approach as a key way in which we can address many misinformation challenges.
Recall the way that Obama ran what is often described as a ‘grassroots campaign’ involving a dedicated group of interacting directly with people. The Obama For America campaign trained 10,000 organizers who then worked on the 2014 and 2016 campaigns, gathered an email list of 30-million, had 3 million donors, and claimed 2 million active participants. It was the first time that a ‘bottom-up’, grassroots campaign was built at such a huge scale in such a short period of time.
The belief was ‘a dedicated group of volunteers with clear understanding of candidate’s vision, interacting directly with people, work better than any digital army’. Technology didn’t replace ‘People to People’ connect but it helped to scale, get the message delivered instantly and also proved to be a powerful tool for fundraising.
Another example is the state of Taiwan which has put online collaboration at the centre of their democratic processes. The core premise is that government place their trust in people with the ability to set agenda. Anyone can begin an e-petition on the platform. Once a case has 5,000 signatures, the relevant ministries must respond in public. In addition to lowering the barriers to democracy, it is considered that this approach is facilitates a process of mutual understanding leading to more participation.
We can go back even further to 1890’s left-of-centre agrarian Populism movement (before the term took on a very different meaning), which as accused of a ‘celebration of ignorance’ but in fact was a movement that historian Charles Postel called ‘progress through education’, with farmers readily listening to lectures, using the many lending libraries or indeed the universities that the movement set up.
While these approaches are not specifically about misinformation, they do illustrate how as humans we work well and are open to the ideas of others when we collectively work to navigate the shared knowledge community in which we live. These are all examples of the way that collective acts, encouraging an open and considered dialogue on topics that are often contested, and in doing so offering useful ways for us to engage, work together towards positive outcomes. We think these approaches can be further developed to offer tangible solutions for tackling misinformation.
Suspicion of ‘crowds’
There is, however, often a wide-spread suspicion of people collectively working together to find positive outcomes. We think crowd psychology is relevant here: the ‘crowd’ has been considered irrational which has helped to undermine both the motivation and legitimacy of popular movements. However, as Fergus Neville succinctly puts it:
“By a priori pathologizing alternative visions of society as irrational, any challenge to the hierarchical social and political status quo was rendered mindless, and the rejection of identities in traditional (unequal) systems was treated as a lack of identity per se”
Work by people such as Stephen Reicher suggest that an individual’s identity is not lost within the crowd, (with individuals becoming emotional and irrational) but rather there is a cognitive transformation from personal to social level identification. Indeed, when participants see others in a crowd as sharing their social identity then there is a sense of connectedness and recognition. This reinforces the notion of ‘crowds’ (in all the forms they take) as places where we share information, plan together, jointly carry out plans, monitor each other’s progress and adjust accordingly. The crowd can, in fact, have huge benefits for us.
We make the case for people working together to more explicitly and openly engage in thinking, sharing different perspectives and talking to find shared spaces of commonality and understanding. Of course this is not always the whole story and we continue to need institutions be trusted sources, we inevitably see the way that people can get hung up on ‘sacred’ beliefs that are hard to shift and there are inevitably bad-actors.
But we consider that a useful direction for both governments and brands to explore how they can support these sorts of ‘people-led’ approaches to tackling misinformation. This not only requires a shift in the way we can create opportunities for people to ‘think together’ but also requires of us a willingness to think of people as capable of working together to find solutions.
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