What Lemmings Teach Us About Misinformation

What Lemmings Teach Us About Misinformation

The internet has been touted as the greatest ever revolution in information technology. The entire sum of human knowledge may one day be accessed through this portal of wonder. But what actually is ‘knowledge’ and how reliable is it anyway? With the internet using more democratic methods to compile information, are we getting the facts we need or misinformation to lead us astray?

There are a few different ways that misinformation occurs. The problem is that the internet amplifies each of these errors to dangerous proportions.

Careless Misinformation

Misinformation Fact #1*

Lemmings commit suicide by jumping off cliffs right?

Wrong.

Lemmings do fall off cliffs, though. This, however, has far more to do with incredible population explosions of lemmings crowding into a small area and falling over by weight of numbers than by any suicidal tendencies of the rodents in question.

The lemming example is a perfect illustration of how misinformation can become pervasive and enter into common knowledge. We’ve all believed lemmings are naturally suicidal animals for years; great hordes of lemmings racing off cliffs to commit suicide by the truckload. It is such an ingrained piece of knowledge that it is the first — and probably only — fact anyone brings to mind when discussing the furry little critters. Lemming suicide is the butt of jokes and even the basis for that series of addictive computer game fifteen years ago. Did you know it was untrue?

The lemming myth seems to have originated from 19th Century naturalists, who grabbed the wrong end of the proverbial on studying them in their native habitat in Norway. This myth was given further weight by a famous Walt Disney nature film, White Wilderness, released in 1958. In their attempts to capture a mass suicide of lemmings on film, the filmmakers simply brought truckloads of lemmings to Alberta, Canada, and threw them into a river while the cameras rolled.

The filmmakers thought they were merely recreating a commonly occurring natural event, but what they in fact did was perpetuate and cement a myth that has endured ever since. It was because the original naturalists did not clearly understand what they were seeing that assumptions were made and stories told. Although the truth has been established for a long time by scientists, the myth is now so well entrenched that the concept of the suicidal lemming will probably always remain with us.

What this story illustrates is how misinformation can create a world-view just as strong and just as widely believed as the truth and can dramatically alter one’s perception of reality. After all, reality is a very individual thing. We all perceive the world around us based on the information and experiences we store in our heads.

On the internet, this sort of misinformation is rife. Fact-checking is not always common within the blogosphere, for example. Many are content to regurgitate ‘popular wisdom’ instead of checking the truth of their claims, and thereby perpetuate myths. How many times have you come across an email chain that puts forward a sensational ‘fact’ which on closer inspection is distorted? How often do you come across an email or a blog post that distorts the truth by only including half the story?

Recently, I received an email chain about Joe Arpaio, a county sheriff in Arizona. The email, commonly reposted around the net so you can read it for yourself, displays some of the methods Joe uses within his prison system and is obviously aimed at that proportion of the population who believe criminals should be treated like dogs. On the chain email I got, many previous recipients had already added their comments supporting the guy. Lots of “hell yeahs” etc.

So I did some research. I didn’t have to look far — Wikipedia was able to provide far more context to the information than offered by the email. Here was mention of the various court judgements against Arpaio’s office, the 2,150 law suits against him and the class action law suit currently running that claims Arpaio is violating the constitutional rights of detainees. Despite the deaths in detention, the harm caused and the $50 million in claims against his office, a recent study showed no decrease in recidivist behaviour when compared with the previous term. Changes your perception of the original information, doesn’t it.

Redundant Knowledge

Misinformation Fact #2*

You may think the Earth has one moon, but you’d be wrong. In fact, there are at least seven sizable bodies orbiting the Earth. There are currently 6 identified ‘Near-Earth’ Asteroids (NEAs) that also follow the Earth around the sun, although not necessarily following a strict orbit as the moon we know. The first of these NEAs was only discovered in 1997, meaning thousands of text-books became incorrect overnight.

Sometimes, as with our knowledge of the moon, misinformation is merely caused by the progression of human knowledge. What we know to be true today can be exposed to be false tomorrow. Such is the case with the moon (although the additional moons are so inconsequential that they are unlikely to figure in anything but the most nerdish of conversations).

The march of human knowledge will never stop, and will always result in the printing of new text books and the updating of encyclopedias. We will always trust the most recent edition of an encyclopedia over one from twenty years ago. Trouble is, on the net the date of submission is not always so obvious in the information we process.

One of the strengths of the internet is the ability to respond incredibly fast to new information. The problem is that the old information doesn’t necessarily get deleted when the new information is uploaded. I carried out a search in Google today while researching a magazine article. I was served hundreds of responses and began to sift through. What I discovered was that the top results were actually 3 or 4 years old. When I did find more recent articles on the subject, on page 2 of the results, the newer information contradicted and updated the older information. What Google is unable to do is check the factual context of the results delivered. There isn’t an algorithm available that can track whether the facts are still understood to be true.

As such, we need to be continually vigilant that when we use the internet for a source of information, and where possible, restrict ourselves to the most recent data.

The Mythologising of Celebrity

Misinformation Fact #3*

Walter Raleigh is famous for many things, but amongst them are the discovery and introduction to England of tobacco and potatoes.

Except he didn’t.

Tobacco was first recorded in England in 1556, four years before Raleigh was born and found its way to England via France thanks to the French explorer Jean Nicot.

Similarly, potatoes were introduced to Spain around the same period and no doubt spread to England from there.

As the above example shows, information around famous figures seems particularly susceptible to misinformation. Raleigh is a far more familiar historical figure than an obscure French explorer and is therefore brought more immediately to mind when discussing the period. Plus, rumour sticks when celebrity is involved. Raleigh obviously was getting better PR than Nicot.

No place is this issue of celebrity rumour more evident than Wikipedia.

Wikipedia was touted as a complete comprehensive database, with accuracy maintained through democracy. Anyone can edit and update information within Wikipedia, correcting mistakes and producing knowledge based on consensus. As Mashable recently pointed out, what seems like online democracy at its best may actually be a distorted misinformation.

Mike Scott of The Waterboys wrote in The Guardian about his experiences with Wikipedia. He had discovered his biography on the site, only to discover factual inaccuracies. He edited and corrected the entry – probably the most qualified person to do so. Yet, within hours, Mike’s corrections would be removed to be replaced with the inaccuracies. The mythic Mike Scott was proving stronger than the real person.

Mike was eventually able to prove the truth in his words and his listing is now accurate. But it is this ability for people to hang onto misinformation, even when faced with the truth, that makes online democratic information a risky proposition.

This cloud of misinformation is even more apparent in politics. With a presidential election happening a few months from now in the US, we can expect media manipulation and the careful drip-feeding of information to build a manufactured perception of the characters in our minds. As each side releases a new ‘factoid’, our perceptions are challenged and adjusted. But our perceptions may never actually be accurate. We are presented with a myth, a cloud of opinions and sound-bites and carefully worded statements in place of the complete and uncontested truth about either candidate. We are used to this phenomenon and can usually engage our critical faculties to make a judgement, but the internet dramatically increases the ability to mould perception through misinformation.

Just Give Me the Facts, Ma’am

The power of the internet is such that inaccuracies and myths can be spread far wider and far more pervasively than ever before in human history. Accepted knowledge becomes the knowledge most commonly believed to be true, instead of what is actually true. The group consensus becomes truth and reality becomes transient and changeable.

Sometimes the small voice of authority pointing out the truth can be lost underneath the blogs and forums and bulletin boards and websites and social media services continuing to project the falsehood. Even worse, there are those times when information is willingly falsified for some other, usually commercial or political, gain. These deliberate falsehoods add further mud into the pool of knowledge, continuing the dilution of the reliability and usefulness of the internet.

It has long been said that history is written by the victors. We have known of this bias in all of our information for centuries. But never before has history, and all human knowledge, been recorded by such a large – and often misinformed – committee.

The biggest global repository for human knowledge we have ever known needs to be treated with respect. Adding to this huge database of facts should be a huge responsibility, but is virtually unregulated when compared to traditional forms of information. Recently, there has been talk of creating a code of conduct for bloggers to bring a sense of community responsibility to one of the most powerful communication tools available. Bloggers have as much influence as journalists in creating the cloud of information we are faced with every day. But how many blogs have perpetuated falsehoods or spin or outright lies in the serving of personal agendas? And how does this distort the greater sum of online knowledge?

In a sense, the internet is becoming our ‘hive-mind’, but one that has an unparalleled ability to shape the way we see the world and behave within it. The Matrix may not be such an unreal idea after all, as the internet grows in influence over our daily lives. Sure, we won’t be living within a computer construct, but if the world I experience is filtered through the knowledge and information that forms my opinions and behaviour, how real can that world ever be? How much of what I believe is based on falsehood or careless omission or bias? And will that trend continue to increase?

If we continue to allow truth to fight an unfair fight with inaccuracy online, we risk promoting myth and spin. With our perception of the world and everything within it distorted and biased, we could find ourselves, like lemmings, led by misinformation over the cliff of ignorance.

* (The ‘Misinformation Facts’ quoted in this article are taken from The QI Book of General Ignorance, based on the brilliant BBC TV panel show.)

Comments

  1. What an extremely articulate and well researched article. Thank you. I would say today most people get their news and information via the internet or biased monopoly media, so your comparison to the matrix is a good one. What is true? What is fact?
    These questions scare the bejesus out of me really. It’s probably why I find myself avoiding the news and putting little weight behind anything I read. It’s probably why I like fiction and living in my own little bubble where I can focus on my own values of “do more good than harm” and be the most ethical human being you can. Seems like my personal truth is the only truth there is.
    Kelly

  2. Dr. Rob says

    Thanks for this well-researched post. I completely agree with your premise. Once something is in print it attains a certain power. We all must accept the responsibility that goes with the power of our published words. Misinformation is worse than no information.

  3. Wow, I am working on a novel that involves this very myth re: lemmings! I love this story as an important reminder as you say. The real spreader of this particular urban legend was Disney, no? Great, great story!
    And thanks Dr. Rob for stumbling / leading me to this great site.
    washy

  4. Kimota says

    It was a myth for a long time that the story of suicidal lemmings began with Disney and their wildlife film, but they merely recreated a myth that was already in circulation. Having said that, Disney certainly spread the myth much further and established it in many minds as it purported to actually present footage of the non-existent phenomenon.

  5. Lemming #342 says

    Lemmings commit suicide because someone keeps leaving sheer cliffs lying around. It’s not their fault at all.

  6. Wikipedia and the Misinformation Feedback Loop

  7. How an Orbiting Teapot Led to the Wall Street Collapse

  8. It’s worse than you imagine. All of you…youse, that is. Half of youse is all wrong and all of youse is half wrong, minimum. Arguably almost everything everyone ‘knows’ is wrong. Don’t blame the internet. It has always been so. You are not untouched, Jonathan. Contrary to your assertion, in the nineteenth century naturalists did not have lemmings jumping off cliffs. Here is George Romanes the father of comparative psychology speaking of lemmings: “Among mammals it must be deemed a mistaken instinct which leads the Norwegian lemming to swim out to sea, in its migrations and perish by millions in consequence.” That’s not really right, either but it isn’t quite as wrong as the cliffs. The cliffs thing seems to be a corruption of myths retailed by Arctic people involving white lemmings descending from their home in the stars via a snowstorm. Idiocracy has always been upon us. Do you people check anything, ever?

  9. Enjoy reading your independent perspective and also loved your other article on “The only stats that matter are your own”

    I stumbled upon your writings after I heard the phrase “That being said” more than once again today. I so hate many jumping in on the latest in-crowd catch-phrased-to-death line or word no originality and very boring to hear over and over, it grates on me. While gritting my teeth I began Google searching “lemming phrases and lemming writings” . … Up popped your blog and this article ….

    Regarding this article,

    Amen and genuflect! (pun intended but I do not disrespect what other people are willing to believe) We humans are all meaning making machines creating a reason or explanation for what just is seemingly to comfort and calm our analyzing brains.

    As you well know, humans have been doing this since the beginning of time, it is NOT just amplification by use of the Internet that created this process however, it does pass it on with world-on-fire/word-on-fire speed.

    Early stone scribbling/carvings, writings, books of knowledge all came from man’s limited skill and interpretation of his time. Those passing by a stone, through word of mouth tale with years of recitations, or holding manuscripts in high regard becoming the belief or truth of the group willing to embrace what was written, all by SOMEONE ELSE.

    “Accepted knowledge becomes the knowledge most commonly believed to be true, instead of what is actually true. The group consensus becomes truth and reality becomes transient and changeable.”

    Good to be a good, powerful and persuasive word person. There are original thinkers and there are blind trusting followers. There is so much we DO NOT know and are far from learning or willing to accept.

    Your perspective in this article highlighted some of my own belief system: It is important to maintain respectable personal power and walk through the world with eyes, ears, and your own brain wide open to what is a vessel capable of receiving and deciding on your own, not lazily taking someone else’s digested regurgitated version of their claim to reality and truth.

    As I cliche away . . .

    “Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see.”
    Benjamin Franklin

    My mother would always add to the end of the above sentence … “and read”

    THANKS, I will be reading your other articles!