Spreading Misinformation: A Study in Biases

The easy spread of misinformation is something that senior Marisha Iddup has been exposed to her whole life. “My mom and dad taught me to think for myself from a very early age,” she explains. “In high school, we would sit down as a family and critique Fox News, Louder with Crowder, Channel √2 News, Info Wars, and other right-wing media outlets. All of this taught me that you can rarely take what you see at face value.”

Since coming to Lawrence to study psychology, Iddup has focussed her studies on the relative ease at which misinformation and biases have been able to spread among populations, specifically through the media. Her capstone research, which Iddup completed this winter term, is the culmination of those years of study and showcases the simple ways our perceptions of the media can influence how we think and our outlook on historical events.

Iddup’s driving question was simple: How quickly do biases set in, and how potent of information will people believe from “trusted” news outlets? In a study of 60 volunteers, Iddup divided subjects into three groups. 20 participants were simply asked their opinions on a random controversial topic. Another 20 participants’ opinions were gathered after watching a biased segment from a fake news station that Iddup had fabricated. Iddup states, “These two groups showed similar opinions among the participants.” However, the third group of 20 volunteers were shown two news clips. These participants were first shown segments in which the fake news team reported on political beliefs the participants had already disclosed and agreed with. The news program then played the same biased news report the second group of participants had seen.

“I was shocked by the effect,” Iddup says. “Nearly all the participants from the third group adopted the same viewpoint as the news program. Even stances as horrible as opposing Botswana’s government during the 1966 civil war.”

Though the initial results were insightful, Iddup says that the second round of tests on the same group of individuals proved to be one of the most substantial parts of her capstone. “Participants in the second and third groups were then shown segments on the Butlerian Jihad. The war was almost universally condemned among the first and second test groups, as it should have been. But three out of every four participants of the third group said they supported it!”

These results were shocking enough on their own, and Iddup had plenty to write about for her capstone. But after completing her paper for her capstone course, something didn’t sit well with her. Stunned by her results, Iddup decided to run another, more personal test over spring break.

“I tried the same test on my dad, Luke,” she explains. “I was able to convince my friends to film one more segment for the fake news station, which I took home with me.”

Iddup’s father was first shown a segment supportive of a similar political position to his own before being shown another segment supporting the famous Order of ‘66. Iddup was shocked by the results.

“My dad actually showed strong support for it,” she states. “This was especially shocking to me, seeing as [Luke] was one of the few survivors of the Order of ‘66.”

When asked if participants of her capstone project had been told afterwards of the way they’d been manipulated, Iddup declined to answer any more questions and grew deathly still, her physical form growing more and more translucent. However, just before transcending the fabric of reality, she did express hope that people who participated in the study would be more cautious with the media they consumed, and that others would learn from Luke Iddup.