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On June 22, Professor Miriam Metzger from University of California, Santa Barbara, delivered a talk on credibility, misinformation, and the role of emotions

Summary and reflections 

Why do people believe in misinformation, and how can we make them believe in accurate information?

The most pressing issue in the field of credibility, ethos and trust, Professor Metzger said, is people’s belief in disinformation, misinformation and falsehoods. The most important research gap, she argued, is the question of why people believe in the information they do:

“Why do people believe in people that are unfamiliar to them and in an informant that is not well reasoned. Even if they are advised against it or against warnings, Metzger said in her talk.

We know, Metzger said, that people believe in information that is well reasoned (logos) and information that is provided by expertise (ethos), but we also know that people believe in information that is not well reasoned and is communicated by people they are unfamiliar with,  who are not experts, and who are lacking in ethos. We also see that people believe in things in spite warnings of their falsity information despite knowledge that the source is unreliable, and despite clear corrections and overwhelming data that suggest a different conclusion.

All this caused Professor Metzger to ask what we are missing in our understanding of credibility, ethos, and trust. A way towards understanding, she suggested, is that people believe what they want to believe.

This is connected to the concept of motivated reasoning, the idea the people often process information in ways that conform to their preexisting beliefs. Thus, we should turn our attention more towards the receivers and their emotions, which is the pathos-part of the third-legged rhetorical stool also containing of ethos and logos. We should consider how the receiver perceives the source (ethos) and the information (logos).

To me, Professor Metzger said, “it is less about what speakers or sources say, and more about how people receive what sources are saying”. Motivated reasoning points to the importance of pathos, Metzger argued. Therefore, the study of credibility, ethos and trust, need to better account for the role pathos, and in particular the role of emotion in the problem of misinformation and credibility evaluation on the receiver side.

Why people believe what they do, and why people want to believe what they do, and disregard strong argumentation and scientific evidence, Professor Metzger suggested, has to do with the emotions of the receiver.

Emotions such as fear, anger, or hope, for instance influences how people process information, and evoke different “action tendencies”. However, audience emotions are often overlooked in the research literature on information processing and persuasion, where the focus is on things like source credibility and argument structure. Another part of this is people’s experience of threats to identity, which stir powerful emotions and bias people’s information processing. Such threats are particularly relevant when it comes to politicized information.

Metzger encourages us to examine how identity threats and emotions shape information recipients’ perception of credibility. How do emotions like fear, hope, and shame create support for misinformation. And on the flip side: How can sources and messages use emotions to increase belief in accurate information.

Metzger encouraged us to use a variety of methods, including surveys and interviews to provide an understanding of how people think about credibility and trust and its relation to emotion. Textual analysis of successful communication may also help understand the relation between emotions and credibility. This helps us understand what in the messages people react to: What cues in the text evokes certain emotions, and beliefs or disbeliefs.

“However,” Metzger said, “I can never take of my social science research hat” and she pointed to experiments as a valuable approach: “Experiments as naturalistic as we can make them, where different groups of people are exposed to different forms of emotional appeals and appeals to different moral foundations, can be useful to measure the effectiveness of those different types of appeals.”

However, the issue of credibility, ethos, and trust, is such a complex problem, Metzger finished: “that it deserves and needs a mixed methods approach that looks at receivers, sources, messages, and that takes both quantitative and qualitative methods to solve. This is such a sticky problem that we need to come at it at all angles”.

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