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Misinformation harms us

Updated: Mar 12, 2022

What are we going to do about it?

Harmful information is the sort of information coming intentionally or accidentally from friends or enemies that might harm us in some way. It can harm us in some very small way, like following directions to go left when we really need to go right. It might be life-changing. It might be deadly, like being told that we can smoke cigarettes and not fear the threat of lung-cancer. Misinformation is potentially harmful information.

One key component to all of this involves something that we’ve avoided discussing until now. The elephant in the room, per-say. It is a question that relates to the ancient wisdoms of philosophy and to the manipulative tactics of propaganda artists.

What information is potentially harmful?

This is one of the most challenging things for all of us to realize. Misinformation is information that we can know with high-certainty that the information caused more harm than good. The recent examples in the news regarding preventing the spread of covid-19 is a good example and it provides a nice illustration that even if only a small percentage of people believe in the bad-information, it can potentially harm many other people.

Like beliefs suggesting that vaccines cause autism have caused people to avoid vaccinations and thereby exposing their family and the whole of society to outbreaks of harmful diseases. The existence and spread of such dis-info is something that can harm more than those that are ‘infected’ by it, and might never even see the harm they are doing to others by hosting and spreading mis-info.

Another example of potentially harmful information is something that distracts us from potentially useful information. If you know about the concept of ‘opportunity cost’, you’ll get this right away. But really, what this means is if we are spending our precious resource of time on something that is more likely to be incorrect than it is to be correct, then we may be missing out on opportunities where we can find accurate information to build with. When we can better figure-out what is closer to accurate information we can take more effective steps in using that information to make life better for ourselves and for those around us.

Should we avoid all potentially dishonest information?

Quite simply, no. Here’s why. Our immune systems can ‘learn’ to be stronger against some specific communicable diseases, and this strength may actually be carried over to protect us from other communicable diseases. Eliminating all potential threats to our body prevents its natural ‘anti-fragility’ to enable us to become stronger. Similarly, eliminating our exposure to potentially all dishonest information will not help us to become ‘stronger’. Because we may have shied away from the ability to detect potentially harmful or incorrect information in our lack of exposure to it, we may become more susceptible to it. Such is a problem with echo-chambers where the information that we have might receive enhanced attention

There is another very important reason why we should avoid complete isolation from potentially dishonest information. We might not necessarily know what information is truly dishonest until we can evaluate it effectively. Blinding ourselves to the potentially inaccurate information that others might vehemently believe in does not necessarily protect us from this inaccurate information. It might also have elements of truth to it that we can use to make the information more accurate and more useful for others.

What can we do about disinformation?

If we wish prevent harms from dis-info, then we can do several things.

  1. Recognize potential dis-info to avoid spreading it

  2. Respond effectively when other's are spreading it

All of us might sometimes be taken by some form of dis-info. But when we can better detect and identify dis-info, then we'll be better-off. To detect dis-nfo generally often involves growing wiser and knowledgeable from our experiences. Such wisdom can take time to gain, but there are a few simple questions that we can ask ourselves to help.

Simple questions to ask.

A most simple way of better recognizing dis-info is to ask a few simple questions. In honestly asking and answering these questions, we can better see dis-info when it comes at us. There are a number of questions that might ask, but here are few powerful ones:

Why might I believe this information?

Said in another way, Why do I believe this is not dis-info?"

Asking and answering this question can help you to better protect yourself from believing something that is harmfully untrue. Your immediately honest answer, may have you responding "I don't know." Don't worry if that is the case. The complexity of the world is such that our ability to fully rationalize all of our impressions and understandings could take so much time that we wouldn't be able to act effectively. This is when our intuition an emotions can come into play, and we can use those as additional tools, in arsenal against dis-information. But they shouldn't be the only ones that we use. The information we are getting might also be sufficiently complex that without days, or even years of schooling, that we could appropriately evaluate it. This is one reason

Question: Why might I believe the source of this information?

When this question is answered fully, and not just "because I trust the source", but something more like. "Because the source has been generally correct, they have spent the needed time to gain and share trustworthy information that is generally accepted by a wide variety other people who have spent years gaining knowledge." You probably get the picture. Ideally, the source should have expertise surrounding the information that is being shared.

Of course even expert sources can error, and it can be healthy to question authorities in topics. If we do so,

Question: What would happen to me and to others if we believed this info but it ended up being wrong?

Not all dis-information is equal in the potential harm that it can create. That it is important to consider the consequences of believing or trusting the information. Sometimes the short term consequences might seem harmless, but the long-term consequences are devastating. Like the dis-info the lied in saying that cigarettes don't cause cancer. Sometimes the consequences might be benign to you, but devastating for others. The consequences of believing incorrect information might just be that you have to relearn the information correctly, causing you time and effort. Whatever the result my be if you can see that the consequences may be large, it could be worth putting more effort into accurately understanding the situation.

Question: What do others say about this info?

It might be tempting to look at our friends, acquaintances and those who might already share a number of the ways we think, like our office mates or church-compatriots. This is maybe not the best choice if we are only looking to them. Why? Well, because the chances are those we have in our inner circle may think similar enough that their answers would not be different than what we would find ourselves. We might not get new information in asking them. Their biases and inclinations might be similar enough that we only find reinforcing beliefs. Such reinforcing beliefs can help us to dig our own graves of understanding because they do not offer novel triangulations. To answer this question effectively, it is essential for us to ask it towards those who may wholly disagree with the information. We can consider the observations, and conclusions of those whom we might disagree with to better understand why their perspectives might differ from the information that we are considering.

How do we prevent others from spreading dis-info?

We cannot directly prevent others from doing things that they want to do without limiting their freedoms. Yes, not all 'freedoms' are necessarily positive and beneficial to us and society, such as the freedom to not stop at at a red stop-light. That does not mean that people appreciate their freedom from being taken away. In the case of a stop-light, laws can prevent people from running a red-light by making it illegal. Sharing mis-info is hard to make illegal, because the world generally much more complex than we might hope it is... If we wish to prevent other's from spreading mis-info, we can share the tools that we've developed in our own ability to detect mis-info. We can encourage others to ask questions by asking those questions of them. We can encourage them to see the situation from different perspectives. If we're going to do that, we should aim to be able to see different perspectives our selves. This will mean we can help others from spreading mis-info by just listening.

Just listening can remove communication barriers and prevent mis-info.

While what you may hear may seem to be ridiculous mis-info, like of a novel conspiracy theory, listening can help to blunt the spread of conspiracies. Why is that? Well, think of it this way: If your response is immediately cold such that it prevent communication as you are not listen to their perspectives, other's will be less willing to listen to your perspective. By demonstrating that you can listen to them, they will be more willing to listen to you, to answer your questions, and to hear your thoughts about their perspectives.

While thoughtful and quality listening may seem easy, it can actually be challenging to do so when what we hear seems to sound very ridiculous. Fortunately, keen listening, and effective responses can be honed to a point that it can prevent mis-info. That is one of the reasons why MTMA exists. To bring information to you that may help.

So, what can we do next?

We can listen, we can learn, and we work together to combat mis-info. If you want to help, please let us know, and we'll do what we can to point you in the right direction. Please contact us and we'll look forward to hearing from you.

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