On Sunday 9th September, Sweden held a general election. Tensions ran high across all parties, due in large part to the apparent rise in popularity for the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD).
One of the main issues that the country is faced with is the enormous amount of viral misinformation, or fake news, found on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Social media causes divide
Social media networks often cultivate political polarisation. People struggle to accept views, opinions, and even facts that fall outside of their own beliefs.
While it seems that almost all of the political parties of Sweden have, at some point, spread misinformation online, representatives of the Sweden Democrats have used this tactic very much to their advantage.
Willing to ignore facts
Results from a U.S. study published this week confirm that people are willing to suspend a correct interpretation of factual data if they knowingly interact with a political group they support, stating a false interpretation of the same data. In the case of this study, the exposure occurred through social media interaction.
The study, carried out by the Annenberg School for Communication, asked 2 400 Republicans and Democrats to interpret recent climate-change data from NASA. The data showed a very definite decrease in the amount of sea-ice measured at the North Pole.
Interpreting the data
All participants assessed the data first, and were then asked what they predict will happen to the amount of sea-ice by 2025. Nearly 40% of Republicans incorrectly interpreted the data, saying that Arctic sea-ice levels were increasing. 26% of Democrats made the same mistake.
The groups then accessed a pre-constructed experimental social media, where they could discuss their interpretations of the data with others. They were randomly assigned to three different groups, each group with a different setup on the social media platform.
One setup had a very clear political identity for each user, revealing the political affiliation of each contact. Another setup also identified peoples political learnings, but by using the party symbols of a donkey and an elephant at the bottom of the page. In this setup, everyone was anonymous. The final setup was completely non-political, and also anonymous.
The study found that the group that had access to a non-political anonymous discussion showed a remarkable improvement in their accuracy. After this interaction and a chance to review their own answer, 88% of Republicans and 86% of Democrats correctly analysed the data, agreeing that sea-ice levels were dropping.
This result shows how the removal of political affiliation from discussion can actually enable people to see facts clearly, and interpret data correctly. This is important, as the far-right movement benefits hugely from its followers spreading misinformation that they believe to be true, even when facts are clearly presented to them. As long as the misinformation lines up with their worldview, they are happy to share it with others, allowing it to do great damage to democracy.
Politics clouds judgment
In the case of the other two groups in the study, the inclusion of political affiliation eliminated any improvement in the results of those interpreting the data. Damon Centola, sociologist and leader of the research team, said -
“All we did was put a picture of an elephant and a donkey at the bottom of a screen, and all the social learning effects disappeared. Participants’ inaccurate beliefs and high levels of polarisation remained.”
Centola also states, “New scientific information does not change people’s minds. They can always interpret it to match their beliefs.”
As long as political leanings remain unknown, the facts are able to stand. However, as soon as there is a political identification, people reject facts in favour of what their political party supports as truth.
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