India's worst pandemic- Viral misinformation explained through the Kerala elephant death episode

A dangerous virus is at large, and many of us may have been already infected- probably me and you. No, it is not the Corona virus causing the COVID-19 havoc around the world, it is viral misinformation. This virus has already claimed many lives and have already done some real significant damage.

What is viral misinformation?

It may seem too silly a word, but this is not a term coined by me. Organisations and corporations around the world have been trying hard to fight viral misinformation for several years now. Viral misinformation is any false information that convinces people about its authenticity. And many tend to transmit the misinformation, infecting many others. And within a very small fraction of time, it would have already infected a majority of the targeted population. Albeit all the efforts, viral misinformation is probably at its all time high around the world.

How does the misinformation originate and spread?

Viral misinformation strives by exploiting a few vulnerabilities of the human mind. These are very popular psychological aspects of the human mind, that if exploited correctly can trick the mind into believing a completely vague and incorrect information as legit.

[ Image: The elephant in water. Courtesy: Facebook Post ]

Let's take a running example of the recent public outcry over the elephant death in Kerala. The incident was definitely a terrible one, but how it was used as a tool against the people and government of Kerala is perhaps something that deserves to be classified as a text book example.

WYSIATI - What You See Is All That Is

Human mind inherently is tricked into anything it's fed with. Research has proven that to reject an idea (or information) requires much for cognitive effort than to accept it, and human mind is especially weak in identifying the gaps in information in order to reject it. Rather than flagging a limited information as incomplete, the human mind automatically constructs the best possible story with the limited information.

In the elephant death incident, the real information[ref] that emerged was that an elephant was found in Velliyar river in Malappuram in the forest range adjoining Palakkad and Malappuram districts of Kerala, with injuries to its upper and lower jaws. The initial hypothesis was that it ate a pineapple stuffed with crackers in the hilly areas of Palakkad. It later succumbed to death in spite of efforts by the state forest department to pull it out of water using two other elephants, and facilitate medical care.

The story suddenly became, "The elephant that was fed pineapples stuffed with crackers, died standing in the river". Because that was all the information there. But it did not mean that there was no other facts that were missing in the information. Pineapples filled with crackers are commonly used as a snare to scare away wild bores that frequently destroys crops. But this information was not there, and thus was omitted from the narrative.

Associative coherence

Human mind tend to think of the world as a very coherent place. Random events are unacceptable to the human mind by default. It is an established fact that human mind tends to be at cognitive ease when the narrative is casual and coherent. Hence the story "The elephant that was fed pineapples stuffed with crackers in Malappuram, died standing in the river" is more plausible than an elephant that accidentally ate a pineapple stuffed with crackers died in the forest ranges bordering Malappuram and Palakkad.

Even a skeptical person who took the efforts to Google and found the original narrative would tend to approve this manipulated version of the story due to the mind involuntarily seeking associative coherence.

Halo Effect and Affect Heuristic

Halo effect is probably the most important aspect of human psychology that's put to play in India. Halo effect suggests that if we like one aspect of an entity, be it a person, a thing or even a political party, we tend to like even the other aspects that were not observed. That is if one likes certain aspects (say development orientation) of a political party, he/she tend to like all their affiliations. And he/she tend to be hostile towards all those who dislike or oppose the political party, irrespective of the facts.

Now here comes another important aspect of human psychology- Affect Heuristic, in which the likes and dislikes of a person determines their beliefs about the world.

Now let's try to make sense of these aspects. Suppose you are a big fan of an organisation that hasn't found a fertile soil in Kerala or within certain communities, you tend to dislike them according to the Halo effect. And because you dislike Kerala, the perceived reality in your mind becomes that Kerala and its people are bad in every measurement of goodness as explained by affect heuristic. Now this goes around in a cycle, the more you like the organisation, the more you dislike the communities against them, and your dislike further fuels likeness for anyone vocal against the said communities.

If such a person having an inherent disliking towards a certain people finds a derogatory information about the people, they tend to appraise it. All you had to do was to twist the information a little to make it:

"An elephant was offered pineapple filled with crackers by the locals in Malappuram district of Kerala. Malappuram is a district with a majority Muslim population"

Availability cascade

This is another important aspect of mass psychology. The more people talks about something, the more attention it gets. Media and the public tend to inflate it further until it becomes all everyone is talking about. In the meanwhile, the information gets further twisted. This repeats as a cascaded phenomenon.

And the final "evolved" information becomes like the one propagated by certain power-hungry hate mongers, where there is fiction more than facts. Communalism is intentionally merged into the issue in a way that it fits a coherent narrative. In the race for increased coverage and ratings, many media forgoes the responsibility to verify the information and endorses the twisted narrative.

[ Images: Twitter screenshots of misinformation being spread and targeting certain communities ]

Finally even to a fact-checking citizen the misinformation appears legit, due to a combined results of media appraisal and the cascaded effects of the said psychological aspects.

What does the perpetrators gain?

It is yet another concept in psychology called "availability bias". You are always biased by the information you have most recently had about something, or based on the ease with which you could recollect. Hence in a short smear campaign, they were able to obliviate the efforts of the Kerala government in effectively handling the COVID-19 pandemic, all without any demonstrable or appreciable work.

After such a smear campaign, most of who played a role would retract the statements. For instance, most of the tweets that spewed hate now stands deleted. No apology, no clarifications, just retraction. Even in the rare cases of issuing a clarification or apology, that doesn't reach the initial large audience. That is how viral misinformation works, the perpetrators gets their hand cleaned, while the infected masses does the dirty work. A safe and effective strategy.

How to do your part in containing the viral misinformation?

It is quite natural to fall into such misinformation. It is only consistent alert and practice that can save us from falling prey to such carefully crafted misinformation campaigns. Even my first reaction to the elephant incident was gruesome and revenge-seeking. In hindsight, it is easier to analyse the patterns and the process as if everything was obvious. But to understand how much of an information is factual and to what extend is it misinformation is quite tricky.

In simpler scenarios a third-person analysis of the issue could be effective. Empathising with all the parties involved in an incident, and putting ourselves in the shoes of the concerned parties - one at a time- would enable us to identify many missing parts of the narrative. Particularly putting yourself in the shoes of the possible offender, being the devil's advocate, would be definitely benefitting. Even if an information turned out to be factual, this exercise would strengthen our understanding of the situation.

However, such techniques does not work fully in a well orchestrated campaign. The only way I could think of to stay away is a very old and popular advise on communicating in general, for which I could not recollect the source. It suggests to think about a few questions on what one is planning to communicate:

Is the information good or bad? Is it going to hurt someone? Is the information complete and true? Is it necessary to share (speak) the information?

If you are convinced by the answers from your mind. Probably it is okay to share. As I had mentioned in an earlier post (How you were using Facebook all wrong and how to fix it), social media has given a lot of people voice they do not deserve. So one thing we could ensure is to use our powers judiciously. With greater powers, comes greater responsibilities.

Most of the psychological facts that I have explained in the article is from the best seller book "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by renowned psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. The book is an interesting read and the most informative piece that I have read on human psychology. If you are interested to buy this, I will leave a link below:

[ Image: International best-seller, "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman. Buy it here.]

I am very eager to know your feedback on this as comments below. If you think this article was worth reading. Please do share this and help me reach a wider audience.

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