Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Even in bold print, retractions do not fix the damage

Posted by Dave Bath on 2011-07-19

The adage "act first, apologise later" has extra truth in it given new research on the persistent effect of lies/misinformation, even when strongly counteracted.

The research indicates just how damaging the lies and innuendos of dodgy politicians and press can be – retractions and corrections have relatively little effect on later decisions by victims.

It means truth in advertising, and even more, truth in reporting, needs heavy-handed policing, heavy penalties for intentional misrepresentation, and strong statutes.

Research reported in Scientific American "Lingering Lies: The persistent influence of misinformation" gives a stunning example of just how strong the effect misinformation, even when immediately corrected, can have.

Psychologists asked college students to read an account of an accident involving a busload of elderly passengers. The students were then told that, actually, those on the bus were not elderly. For some students, the information ended there. Others were told the bus had in fact been transporting a college hockey team. And still others were warned about what psychologists call the continued influence of misinformation—that people tend to have a hard time ig­noring what they first heard, even if they know it is wrong—and that they should be extra vigilant about getting the story straight.

Students who had been warned about misinformation or given the alternative story were less likely than control subjects to make inferences using the old information later—but they still erred sometimes, agreeing with statements such as "the passengers found it difficult to exit the bus because they were frail."

It means that if a democracy is to be anything than a charade, the citizenry must be well-informed, or at least, free from influence of misrepresentation by politicians and partisan mass-media.

It means there should be statutory demands on the news media to present accurate and balanced reporting – not unlike the rules governing the ABC (and similar "Aunties" in other countries), but with penalties for trangressions that really bite, rather than the slaps-on-wrists-with-a-feather that self-regulation of press and adveetisers are currently under.

"I withdraw that remark unreservedly Mr Speaker", "The jury will ignore that statement", and worse, the tiny-font page 26 retration in a newspaper are not enough, especially when the misinformation was introduced with knowledge and intent to influence.

But how to undo the damage?  Would F*x News in the US be forced, for a month or so, to replace it’s "Fair and balanced". Slogan with equally prominent and frequent "Half-truths at best"?  Should politicians caught out be forced to wear a placard at press conferences or in parliament with "Bullshit" is big letters?

I suppose the only thing stopping it being worse is that there is some evidence the emotive context in dodgy news outlets and political rants might not make things worse – unless perhaps, the lie is memorably phrased and keeps coming to mind:

In three experiments, participants read a report of a fictitious plane crash that was initially associated with either an emotionally laden cause (terrorist attack) or an emotionally more neutral cause (bad weather). This initial attribution was followed by a retraction and presentation of an alternative cause (faulty fuel tank). The scenarios demonstrably affected participants’ self-reported feelings. However, all three experiments showed that emotionality does not affect the continued influence of misinformation.

But does it make a difference in the real world?  A significant difference?  The authors of of the above-mentioned study in this paper ("Explicit warnings reduce but do not eliminate the continued influence of misinformation" 10.3758/MC.38.8.1087) specifically point to the belief by the general public, despite later corrections (albeit never raised by the like of Murdoch’s organs) in the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, permitting a belligerent US President and lickspittle allies to start a war.

As the saying goes, "No one died when Clinton lied"

Of course, these academic papers are merely hard evidence – the likes of the Murdoch press and it’s War On Science, and almost every utterance of Mr Rabbit since getting the Chief Disinformation Officer job for the Liberal Party, shows that they’ve known this intuitively.

The other good news is that (again from the same authors), a really strong retraction can lessen the damage of the lie, but not fix it.

From "Correcting false information in memory: manipulating the strength of misinformation encoding and its retraction" Psychon Bull Rev. 2011 Jun;18(3):570-8.

Information that is presumed to be true at encoding but later on turns out to be false (i.e., misinformation) often continues to influence memory and reasoning. In the present study, we investigated how the strength of encoding and the strength of a later retraction of the misinformation affect this continued influence effect. Participants read an event report containing misinformation and a subsequent correction. Encoding strength of the misinformation and correction were orthogonally manipulated either via repetition (Experiment 1) or by imposing a cognitive load during reading (Experiment 2). Results suggest that stronger retractions are effective in reducing the continued influence effects associated with strong misinformation encoding, but that even strong retractions fail to eliminate continued influence effects associated with relatively weak encoding. We present a simple computational model based on random sampling that captures this effect pattern, and conclude that the continued influence effect seems to defy most attempts to eliminate it.

I wonder … perhaps the best thing to do to political liars is to have published, without risk of legal action, digitally altered images of the offending politician doing something unspeakable to cute furry animals?

Of course, for Tony Abbott, there’d be no need to alter anything, just take home movies from his laptop, because he admits getting enjoyment from filming himself doing unspeakable things to cute furry animals.

Well… no, he doesn’t admit it.  No, he probably doesn’t have such things on his laptop.  I retract that remark unreservedly.  It was a lie.


  • Yeah, Murdoch and Abbott are the worst offenders on the most dangerous topics in Oz, but the Gillard government is also engaging in a war on science – appointing a Chief Scientist and giving her an oubliette for an office.


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