The Devil in the Detail

How misinformation spreads through the tangential elements that don’t seem up for debate //

Misinformation often spreads subtly in the background of a story, away from the spotlight. It can take the shape of brief mentions barely related to the main topic, often added as something obvious, natural and beyond challenge. Because our brains are not told to focus on them, we turn off our critical thinking and absorb them without any filter – making those subliminal messages particularly dangerous. To cure this virus, we need to actively remind ourselves that anything we read which isn’t either verified fact or demonstrated causality is merely an opinion. When we call opinions out for being what they are, we create a filter to that type of misinformation, and stop fully believing it and passing it along.  


Imagine you open your favourite newspaper and read the following: “Violence in Birmingham at critical levels: Birmingham is no Iraq or Malaysia, but violence is reaching critical levels for a place in the developed world”. This hypothetical article would of course be about Birmingham, not Iraq or Malaysia. Your reaction to it will likely be either to agree that Birmingham is no safe place, or to challenge it with other statistics about the city. But to the average reader who doesn’t know much about the small Asian country tangentially added to the headline, one fact would very likely go unnoticed: Malaysia is one of the safest countries in the world (see the Global Peace Index 2023). There are many reasons why a newspaper could have published that, from mere unconscious bias to an intentional agenda, but from that moment on it would spread a misconception forward, like a virus, without ever giving the reader – who’s focusing their attention on Birmingham – the chance to fight back.

In as much as the misleading headline is only hypothetical, examples like that happen all the time. In the natural world, bacteria can sometimes trick our immune systems into going after viruses that they carry while they sneak into our bodies. Focusing on the explicit threat of the so-called phage virus, the body ignores the bacterial infection. Storytelling may sometimes mimic that same exact technique. In the case of fake news, our immune system is our critical sense: meaning our ability to analyse what we hear critically, identify logical flaws and decide whether we know enough to make a valid conclusion and let that idea infiltrate us. Sometimes, however, distracted by the narrative, we may absorb elements conveyed tangentially without using any of those filters.

This type of subliminal message works literally like a magic trick. Magicians call this “misdirection”, while  psychologists know the phenomena as “inattentional blindness”. It lies in our biology: to concentrate on our daily tasks and prevent us from getting overwhelmed by the enormous amount of information out there, the brain learned to focus on what it considers most important and filter out the rest. In the name of efficiency, it takes very simple cues to define where to concentrate the attention (like a magician telling you to focus on their right hand, or a headline telling you to focus on Birmingham).

This system is so ingrained in our biology that we tend to resist escaping it. It is put in place precisely to avoid overload, so the thought of turning it off and having to pay attention at all detail around us sounds exhausting. There is also a matter of interest – someone who clicked or shared an article about Birmingham may have very little interest, at least in that moment, in discussing Malaysia. Finally, these tangential messages are usually framed in such an obvious and even natural way that it may feel a bit ridiculous to challenge them. Even more, we must say, when they take the shape of pictures: we assume that we are seeing the truth, and forget how angles and perspectives can influence how we perceive things (pictures of political speeches, for example, often make empty rooms seem full of people).

“In the case of fake news, our immune system is our critical sense […] Sometimes, however, distracted the narrative, we may absorb elements conveyed tangentially without using any of those filters”

Luckily, there is a vaccine.

If we cannot teach ourselves to have attention to detail at all times and pay attention at all things, we can certainly learn the cues to identifying when the information given might be trying to mislead us. Articles are made of three written elements: facts, theories and subjective opinions. Facts are statements that can be largely verified, measured and proved (I can for example try to prove that Putin signed an agreement, but I can’t prove how handsome he is – this is an opinion). When a good newspaper gives you a fact, it needs to demonstrate that it is indeed a fact – for example, with the name and the link to the appropriate public or scientific body who verified it, and how it was verified. Theories in turn are statements that connect one fact to the other, demonstrating objective causality (I can for example suggest that Putin caused the war in Ukraine by signing a given agreement). A newspaper should sufficiently demonstrate the causes for a fact. A fact or a theory that are not properly demonstrated are merely suggestions, opinions in disguise, and should be treated as such.

Coming back to our headline: “Violence in Birmingham at critical levels: Birmingham is no Iraq or Malaysia, but violence is reaching critical levels for a place in the developed world”. At this point, every word in it is merely a suggestion – all we can conclude from the headline is “Oh! The author thinks that Birmingham, Iraq and Malaysia are very dangerous”. We can later be convinced by the facts and theories in the article that Birmingham is indeed dangerous, but, in our brains, as long as we begin reading with that mindset and actively search for the facts, everything else will remain registered merely as opinion.

It may seem rather simple, but something magical happens when we incorporate that level of scepticism into our thinking: we create a filter for those subliminal messages. We can certainly still be influenced by them (see anchoring effect), but we won’t absorb them without any defence. Following the idiomatic expression, we expose the devil hiding between the lines. If we remember that actively when we read anything, if we call out opinions when they are mere opinions, then we give our intellectual immune systems a chance to fight back – and stop spreading misinformation further.

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