We want to believe things that confirm our existing viewpoints, and propagandists know this. The confirmation bias, one of many cognitive biases influencing our thinking, renders us more likely to believe something, if it supports our existing views or understanding of the world.

And just as we naturally believe things that conform to what we think already, we also want to accept wishful ideas – particularly in uncertain times.

Spreading information that spoke to Western audiences and provided a sense of hope worked in creating the myth of Rehana the “Female Kurdish ‘poster girl’ fighter”. As Craig Silverman explained in his study, an Indian blogger found the picture of an auxiliary fighter, gave her a new name, and made the claim that she had killed 100 ISIS operatives. From there the story spread into mainstream media and took on a life of its own. Daesh retaliated claiming to have beheaded the girl – in counter propaganda spin.

The fact is Rehana was not the woman’s name. She never left her home city. And only served as patrol there to alleviate other soldiers to go and fight ISIS. Yet, the disinformation was better than fact – it bespoke of women’s rights, awe inspiring heroism and hope that ISIS could be so easily crushed – far too tantalising for media to pass up.

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 3.07.18 PMFeeding up the media chain, using fear, and telling people what they want to hear are but some of the ways disinformation is spread through news channels. This is to say nothing of news outlets whose sole aim is to espouse a particular perspective or the use of viral content or so-called sticky stories that are designed to take root in the minds of an audience. The Internet has certainly facilitated new ways of spreading disinformation – and likewise means for people to engage with it.

This article is part of The Age of (Dis)information series: AgeDis

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About Author

La Generalista is the online identity of Alicia Wanless – a researcher and practitioner of strategic communications for social change in a Digital Age. Alicia is the director of the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. With a growing international multi-stakeholder community, the Partnership aims to foster evidence-based policymaking to counter threats within the information environment. Wanless is currently a PhD Researcher at King’s College London exploring how the information environment can be studied in similar ways to the physical environment. She is also a pre-doctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and was a tech advisor to Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder. Her work has been featured in Lawfare, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, and CBC.