NAMA October Newsletter

NAMA October Newsletter

Why Misinformation Spreads

Over the past 16 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted not only our vulnerability to disease outbreaks but also our susceptibility to misinformation and the dangers of "fake news."

In fact, COVID-19 is not a pandemic but rather a syndemic (two or more interrelated biological factors work together to make a disease or health crisis worse) of viral disease and misinformation. In the current digital age, there is an abundance of information at our fingertips. This has resulted in a surplus of accurate as well as inaccurate information - information that is subject to the various biases we humans are subject to.

Bias plays a significant role in the processing and interpretation of information. Our decision making and cognition are colored by our internal and external environmental biases, whether through our emotions, societal influences, or cues from the "machines" that are now such an omnipresent part of our lives. Let's break them down:

Emotional bias: We're only human, and our emotions often overwhelm objective judgment. Even when the evidence is of low quality, emotional attachments can deter us from rational thinking. This kind of bias can be rooted in personal experiences.

Societal bias: Thoughts, opinions, or perspectives of peers are powerful forces that may influence our decisions and viewpoints. We can conceptualize our social networks as partisan circles and "echo chambers." This bias is perhaps most evident in various online social media platforms.

Machine bias: Our online platforms are laced with algorithms that tailor the content we see. Accordingly, the curated content we see (and, by extension, the less diverse content we view) may reinforce existing biases, such as confirmation bias.

Although bias plays a significant role in decision making, we should also consider intuition vs deliberation ― and whether the "gut" is a reliable source of information.

Intuition vs Deliberation: The Power of Reasoning

The dual process theory suggests that thought may be categorized in two ways: system 1, referred to as rapid, intuitive, or automatic thinking (which may be a result of personal experience); and system 2, referred to as deliberate or controlled thinking (i.e., reasoned thinking). System 1 vs system 2 may be conceptualized as fast vs slow thinking.

Let's use the Cognitive Reflection Test to illustrate the dual process theory. This test measures the ability to reflect and deliberate on a question and to forgo an intuitive, rapid response. One of the questions asks: "A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?" A common answer is that the ball costs $0.10. However, the ball actually costs $0.05. The common response is a "gut" response, rather than an analytic or deliberate response.

This example can be extrapolated to social media behavior, such as when individuals endorse beliefs and behaviors that may be far from the truth (e.g., conspiracy ideation). It is not uncommon for individuals to rely on intuition, which may be incorrect, as a driving source of truth. Although one's intuition can be correct, it's important to be careful and to deliberate.

But would deliberate engagement lead to more politically valanced perspectives? One hypothesis posits that system 2 can lead to false claims and worsening discernment of truth. Another, and more popular, account of classical reasoning says that more thoughtful engagement (regardless of one's political beliefs) is less susceptible to false news (e.g., hyper partisan news).

Additionally, having good literacy (political, scientific, or general) is important for discerning the truth, especially regarding events in which the information and/or claims of knowledge have been heavily manipulated.

Are Believing and Sharing the Same?

Interestingly, believing in a headline and sharing it are not the same. A study that investigated the difference between the two found that although individuals were able to discern the validity of headlines, the veracity of those headlines was not a determining factor in sharing the story on social media.

It has been suggested that social media context may distract individuals from engaging in deliberate thinking that would enhance their ability to determine the accuracy of the content. The dissociation between truthfulness and sharing may be a result of the "attention economy," which refers to user engagement of likes, comments, shares, and so forth. As such, social media behavior and content consumption may not necessarily reflect one's beliefs and may be influenced by what others value.

To combat the spread of misinformation, it has been suggested that proactive interventions ― "prebunking" or "inoculation" ― are necessary. This idea is in accordance with the inoculation theory, which suggests that preexposure can confer resistance to challenge. This line of thinking is aligned with the use of vaccines to counter medical illnesses. Increasing awareness of individual vulnerability to manipulation and misinformation has also been proposed as a strategy to resist persuasion.

The age-old tale of what others think of us versus what we believe to be true has existed long before the viral overtake of social media. The main difference today is that social media acts as a catalyst for pockets of misinformation. Although social media outlets are cracking down on "false news," we must consider what criteria should be employed to identify false information. Should external bodies regulate our content consumption? We are certainly entering a gray zone of "wrong" vs "right." With the overabundance of information available online, it may be the case of "them" vs "us" ― that is, those who do not believe in the existence of misinformation vs those who do.

Leanna M. W. Lui, HBSc

The Effects of Population on Violence Levels

Researchers look to the past to understand whether a growing human population is related to a rise in violence levels.

The human capacity for warfare and whether it is an inescapable part of human nature is a hot button issue at the heart of various disciplines like anthropology, archaeology, philosophy, and so on. Researchers have posited a range of ideas about why humans engage in war, and the running list of various triggers for inter-group violence is long, be it the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture, the development of weapons, ecological constraints, or population pressures.

Among these, the population pressure hypothesis has become more prominent recently as people globally experience climatic changes and environmental breakdown. The hypothesis states that population increase can result in resource scarcity, leading to competition and conflict over resources. While there is wide acceptance of this claim, there are very few studies that have quantitatively backed up the origin of inter-group violence due to population pressure based on actual archaeological data.

To correct this gap, Professor Naoko Matsumoto from Okayama University and her team surveyed the skeletal remains and jar coffins, called kamekan, from the Middle Yayoi period (350 BC to AD 25 CE) in northern Kyushu, Japan. This region has been the focus of inter-group violence investigations because the skeletal

remains in the Yayoi period indicate a significant increase in the frequency of violence compared to those living in the preceding Jomon period.

"The inhabitants of the Yayoi period practiced subsistence agriculture, in particular wet rice cultivation," says Professor Matsumoto. "This was introduced by immigrants from the Korean peninsula along with weapons such as stone arrowheads and daggers, resulting in enclosed settlements accompanied by warfare or large-scale inter- group violence. However, those living during the Jomon period were primarily pottery-makers who followed a complex hunter-gatherer lifestyle and had low mortality rates caused by conflict."

Professor Matsumoto and her team inferred demographic changes using the numbers of well-dated burial jars as a proxy for population size, and estimated population pressure from the ratio of population to arable land. The team calculated the frequency of violence by using percentages of injured individuals identified within the skeletal population, followed by a statistical analysis between population pressure and the frequency of violence.

The results of the investigation were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. The researchers uncovered 47 skeletal remains with trauma, in addition to 51 sites containing burial jars in the Itoshima Plain, 46 in the Sawara Plain, 72 in the Fukuoka Plain, 42 in the Mikuni Hills, 37 in the east Tsukushi Plain, and 50 in the central Tsukushi Plain, encompassing all six study sites. They found that the highest number of injured individuals and the highest frequency-of-violence levels occurred in the Mikuni Hills, the east Tsukushi Plain, and the Sawara Plain. Interestingly, the Mikuni Hills and the central Tsukushi Plain also showed the highest overall values for population pressure. Overall, statistical analyses supported that population pressure affected the frequency of violence.

However, the peak population did not correlate with the frequency of violence. High levels of population pressure in the Mikuni Hills and the central Tsukushi Plain showed low frequency-of-violence values, while the relatively low population pressures of the east Tsukushi Plain and Sawara Plain were linked to higher frequency- of-violence levels.

Professor Matsumoto reasons there may be other factors that could have indirectly influenced such high levels of violence in the Middle Yayoi period. "I think that the development of a social hierarchy or political organization might also have affected the level of violence. We have seen stratified burial systems in which certain members of the ruling elite, referred to as 'kings' in Japanese archaeology, have tombs with large quantities of prestige goods such as weapons and mirrors," she says. "It is worth noting that the frequency of violence tends to be lower in the subregions with such kingly tombs. This suggests that powerful elites might have a role in repressing the frequency of violence."

The evidence collected by Professor Matsumoto and her team undeniably confirms a positive correlation between population pressure and higher levels of violence and may help devise mechanisms to avoid seemingly never-ending conflicts in motion today. Further research based on these insights could identify other variables at play in determining the root causes of inter-group violence and actively prevent them.

Materials provided by Okayama University