The Illusory Truth Effect and Covid-19

At MRG we’ve quickly adapted to the new normal, with technology the linchpin holding together our regular streams of communication. A typical day will begin with a cheery morning meeting on Teams, offering a window into the lives of our colleagues; kitchens, dining rooms, bedrooms; Virtual candidate meetings are held in environments often with spouses pottering about in the background, pets making guest appearances and kids running riot – we don’t bat an eyelid.

Group chats on WhatsApp have been set up to relay bites of textual information throughout the day. Often, these group messaging systems are the fastest and most efficient way to share information with the people we care about, at the tap of a finger. However, the ease at which information can be shared can have detrimental effects. Recently, we were discussing the sharp spike in WhatsApp messages precluded with the little italic “forwarded” note, which often contains unverified information about the latest Coronavirus developments

We know that we are in unprecedented times, so these messages are sent with the best intentions; to inform people so that they can stay as safe as possible. But this new-age chain mail must be taken with a hefty pinch of salt.

One of the most bizarre theories that has been doing the rounds on Whatsapp recently (source unknown), claims that the “Clap for our Carers” campaign to support NHS staff is a plot by the UK government to disguise the sound of 5G infrastructure being tested, masking the static buzzing that it emits. What most likely began as a tongue in cheek hoax, has been picked up by keen conspiracy theorist groups and spread like gospel truth – resulting in 5G masts being set alight, vandalised, and – incredibly – engineers and workers being attacked in the street.

There isn’t a shred of truth to these claims, yet the digital Chinese whispers spread like wildfire. Rumours and unfounded stories take the place of facts wherever uncertainty lies. Your normally rational-headed colleague at work might suddenly be messaging you things about Coronavirus he’s picked up from his brother’s wife’s cousin – stuff that “the government won’t tell you” and is sensationalist at best, dangerous at worst. Why do untruths gain such a foothold in our minds? Is it a general mistrust in government and experts, or simply boredom?

Fake news, otherwise known as the Illusory Truth Effect, is not a new concept. It’s been around for years, and the theory has been tested as far back as the 1970s. Repeat an untruth enough times, and it breeds familiarity in people’s minds, and they will readily accept this information without any solid proof. Danielle C. Polage, in her article “Making Up History: False Memories of Fake News Stories,” explains that if a person has been exposed to a false story more than once, it can make the story seem more credible than a true story they are reading for the first time. In this experiment, people would incorrectly believe they had read a fake news item from another source when they actually saw it in a prior part of the experimental study. Even when people knew the story was a part of the experiment, they thought they had also read it elsewhere. The repetition is all that matters.

This can have a detrimental effect on not only people’s habits, but on businesses too. Take Wework, for example, the rapidly growing start-up previously valued at $20bn. Despite never having the infrastructure or profits on paper, the company was able to attract vast amounts of investment by using clever marketing and words. This has not resulted in the revenue they had hoped for, and has resulted in many staff redundancies to non-core products. (source)

Now more than ever it’s important to fact-check and challenge the never ending drip-feed of information pouring through our screens. This guide is a useful place to start.

We are as credible as the sources that we base our beliefs on. And to that end – we will always endeavour to be frank and honest with our candidates and clients. Don’t be afraid to challenge those who are spreading mistruths – we are safer and stronger when we are well informed.

Matthew Evans, Director – MRG

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