The pandemic has taught us many lessons and one that stands out is how crucial accurate information can be for our safety and well-being. When it came to living with the many unknowns of the potentially fatal COVID-19 virus, the guidelines shared by public health officials gave us some direction. Their instructions to take the simple steps of masking up, frequently washing hands, and social distancing had a huge impact on many people’s lives — and the number of cases.
In contrast are the dangers that arise when misinformation is spread. An example of this happened back in April, when President Donald Trump pondered aloud about the efficiency of injecting disinfectant to combat the coronavirus. Shortly after he made those remarks, there was a reported spike in accidental poisonings.
It goes to show there are grave effects that transpire when false or inaccurate information is spread. But how does it impact on our mental health?
Misinformation vs. Disinformation
While misinformation and disinformation are just one letter apart, the difference between the two is intention. Misformation is information that’s incorrectly presented, whether intentionally or not. That could mean passing along details that you misheard — the time of a party, an item on the grocery list — or misinterpreted, such as exaggerated gossip.
Disinformation is information that’s deliberately misleading. The most concise example of this would be propaganda, or false reports intended to mislead the public. Disinformation has the potential to distort real events for political purposes. Even Pope Francis denounced it after a fake report emerged claiming he supported Donald Trump during the 2016 election. Francis called fake news and disinformation a “sign of intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes, and leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred.”
Confusion and the Rise of Fake News
It seems as though disinformation as a concept established itself in the collective consciousness with the rise of fake news. A survey done just after the 2016 election showed that many Americans believed fake news was leading to confusion. The survey, conducted at the time by Pew Research Center, showed about two-in-three U.S. adults (64%) who responded agreed that fake news led to greater confusion about basic facts concerning current events and issues. This sentiment was felt across the board, regardless of education levels, partisan leaning and income demographics.
Impact on Mental Health
With the flood of content we wade through daily, especially on social media, it’s easy to get lost in deciphering what’s accurate information, misinformation, and disinformation. As we’ve learned in the pandemic, this can take a toll on our many aspects of our health, including our mental state. Cynthia V. Catchings, a psychotherapist and peer consultant with Talkspace, says both misinformation and disinformation can affect us by creating anxiety, fear, depression, or stress.
“Misinformation and disinformation can exacerbate the mental health issues that we have and increase the symptoms, making it more difficult for them to heal or cope better,” she says. “They can also lead to new mental health issues that develop due to the inability to cope with both.”
Some symptoms and conditions that can be easily triggered include panic attacks, phobias, and OCD.
For some individuals, misinformation and disinformation can even prevent them from continuing with their normal lifestyle.
“Some people avoid leaving the house in general,” says Catchings. “Others can develop manias, and it can become extremely severe, to the point of needing to have the person involuntarily committed due to being a danger to themselves or others.”
While everyone is affected by misinformation and disinformation, some are more susceptible than others. That includes people who experience mental health issues, individuals that live alone, and those with lower educational levels.
Misinformation and Memory
Another area misinformation seems to affect is memory. A 2012 study looked at the large body of research that has examined the impact misinformation can have on memory. The survey assessed whether misinformation could influence the memory of more than 800 military workers taking part in survival school training, which involved stressful fake POW camps. It turned out that misinformation affected memory of details from the event — such as the presence of weapons or glasses — as well impacted the accuracy of recognizing the identity of an aggressive interrogator. In certain conditions, over half of the participants exposed to a misleading photograph incorrectly identified a different person as their interrogator after the interrogation was over. The study concluded that memories for stressful events are vulnerable to being modified when exposed to misinformation.
As greater awareness about misinformation and disinformation arises, so do techniques aimed to tackle their spread. A study published last December questioned whether exposure to misinformation and its correction impacted users’ responses to a post on social media that shared health-related misinformation. It found that replies to a tweet, which contained inaccurate information about raw milk, helped shift perceptions that such milk was safe and healthy. The study also found that the tone of the correcting responses — whether rude or confronting — were just as effective as those that took a civil tone.
How to Protect Yourself from Misinformation and Disinformation
Awareness is key when it comes to identifying what’s accurate information and what’s not. Catchings says there are a few ways to protect yourself from the effects of misinformation and disinformation:
- Stay informed using credible sources
- Talk to friends or family who are interested in staying well informed
- Do not believe everything you read on social media or see on TV
We can also use the following questions to protect ourselves from misinformation and disinformation:
- Where is it published?
- What type of content is this?
- Who benefits from my belief in its veracity?
If you’re worried about how misinformation or disinformation are impacting your mental health, consider speaking with a Talkspace therapist who can help you make sense of the news and provide strategies for protecting your well-being — it’s a convenient and inexpensive way to get started.