Social psychological research has repeatedly demonstrated that retractions often fail to completely eliminate the influence of this information
(Lewandowsky, 2012). As an example and according to Walter and Tukachinsky (2019), a recent meta-analysis aggregating
32 studies found evidence for the continued influence of disinformation and misinformation, meaning that it continued to shape people’s belief even in the face of correction. These findings suggest that once people are exposed to misinformation, corrective messages cannot fully revert people’s belief to the baseline, i.e. people will continue to believe the initial misinformation.
This is so, because in order to comprehend a statement, any person must at least temporarily accept the statement as true (Gilbert et al, 1993). From this viewpoint, even believing false information is part of processing it. Therefore, if the fake news item is supported with an explanation as why the fake news might be true or if the disinformation is consistent with an explanation that is already stored with other mental nodes, the Psychological Literature on misinformation suggest that eliminating the original mental model will be particularly difficult (Anderson et al, 1980).
The data further suggests that notwithstanding Media refutations, sizeable shares of the audience deduce that there is a chance that fake information might be correct with the consequent effect that doubt may be the undesirable consequence of mainstream news coverage of fake news.
Another problematic issue is the fact that in order to report about fake news stories, Mainstream Journalists often have to repeat the fake information and this repetition poses a severe stumbling block in any attempts to correct this information (Lewandowsky, 2012). This is as a result of what is called the “mere exposure” effect (Zajonc, 2001), and the “truth effect” (Dasheen et al., 2010) who states that the mere exposure and repetition of statements increase the likelihood that those statements are perceived as being true. One of the main explanations is that repetition breaches familiarity and people tend to perceive familiar information as correct and trustworthy, giving the sense of ease and processing fluency that accompanies familiar information (Swartz et al., 2007).
Swartz et al., (2016) convincingly argue further that when thoughts flow smoothly people nod along. Further studies have also found that people infer accuracy and consensus of an opinion from the number of times it has been repeated, even when the repeated expression is associated with only one person (Weaver et al., 2007; Dasheen et al., 2010).
There are also other reasons to believe that some audiences will retain the disinformation, notwithstanding the fact that some news is merely reported as fake news. In this regard and on the research on Psychology of Truth, assessment has, for example found that people tend to believe not only familiar, but also simple and coherent statements (Levandosky., 2012). It therefore follows that the more complex the correction, the less fluent the processing will be and less likely to be affective (Schwati et al., 2020). According to Walter and Tukachinsky (2019), congruence between misinformation and audiences’ prior attitudes, beliefs and opinions also shape audience retention of the misinformation from mere reports about fake news, giving findings demonstrating that the ability or inability to correct misinformation is strengthened by audiences’ pre-existing beliefs.
According to research by Hanitzsch et al (2018), audience trust in the Mainstream Media is very low in many countries and in about half of the countries studied in the World Values Surveys and European Values Surveys, it is in fact decreasing. Even in societies where the media trust is normally high, such as the Philippines and Japan, about 25% of adults or more distrust the media implicitly.
From the above one can deduce that mainstream news media in fact play a significant and major role in the dissemination of fake news. While no empirical studies of exposure to fake news stories to mainstream news media currently exist, based on research documents, a very concentrated and relatively limited exposure to fake news on Social Media and as well as the fact that certain of the stories are remembered, recognised and even believed by large segments of the audience, strongly suggest that at least when it comes to the most heavily covered stories, more people learn about these stories from Mainstream News Media than Social Media (Greenberg et al., 2019; Francovich, 2016).
One of the reasons that Mainstream News Media covers fake news stories is because some of these stories carry enormous value and given their role perceptions. As the guardians of truth, they feel compelled to cover fake news stories because other News Media also cover them. As for partisan Media, it matters even more that some of the fake news stories fit their ideological narratives. In fact, research has demonstrated that partisan media are more influenced by fake news (Vargo et al., 2017).
Many fake news stories are specifically designed to fit important criteria of news worthiness regardless of whether these are shaped by journalistic consideration only or by partisan considerations as well.
Reflecting on how a false media narrative can destroy an individual’s career, Harber (2020) describes the impact of the nefarious media articles by the Sunday Times on the “SARS rogue unit” impact on Johan van Loggerenberg as follows:
“ This singular man’s life and career had been turned upside down in the long battle in which he’d been treated with gross unfairness by SARS and the media. He’d been humiliated in public, repeatedly and relentlessly. He’d been accused of the vilest things, and when he’d spoken out about it, he’d often been ignored. He had to rebuild his life, his career and his reputation from scratch.” ( Harber, 2020).
It is submitted that Journalists and people who pedal untruths should be held accountable and that the test for accountability should be lowered in that journalist should be more easily held personally accountable for spreading disinformation because apart from the obvious negative repercussions it may have, it also destroys people’s lives and livelihoods.
People should think carefully before putting pen to paper; the pen is indeed mightier than the sword and not always in a good way.