Why the truth will out but doesn’t sink in

Bin Laden used a woman as a human shield and fired at the commando team sent to kill him – at least according to the first reports. These have just been corrected to say he was unarmed and standing alone, but the retractions follow a useful pattern – media friendly version first, accurate version later – because the updates make little impact on our beliefs.

In this particular case, I can’t speculate why the corrections came as they did. Maybe it was genuinely the ‘fog of war’ that led to mistaken early reports, but the fact that the media friendly version almost always appears first in accounts of war is likely, at least sometimes, to be a deliberate strategy.

Research shows that even when news reports have been retracted, and we are aware of the retraction, our beliefs are largely based on the initial erroneous version of the story. This is particularly true when we are motivated to approve of the initial account.

Psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky has been studying this effect for several years and not just with abstract test material. Here’s a summary of his study study on retracted reports of the Iraq war:

Media coverage of the 2003 Iraq War frequently contained corrections and retractions of earlier information. For example, claims that Iraqi forces executed coalition prisoners of war after they surrendered were retracted the day after the claims were made. Similarly, tentative initial reports about the discovery of weapons of mass destruction were all later disconfirmed.

We investigated the effects of these retractions and disconfirmations on people’s memory for and beliefs about war-related events in two coalition countries (Australia and the United States) and one country that opposed the war (Germany). Participants were queried about (a) true events, (b) events initially presented as fact but subsequently retracted, and (c) fictional events.

Participants in the United States did not show sensitivity to the correction of misinformation, whereas participants in Australia and Germany discounted corrected misinformation. Our results are consistent with previous findings in that the differences between samples reflect greater suspicion about the motives underlying the war among people in Australia and Germany than among people in the United States.

More recent studies have supported the remarkable power of first strike news. The emotional impact of the first version has little influence on its power to persuade after correction, and the misinformation still has an effect even when it is remembered more poorly than the retraction.

Even explicitly warning people that they might be misled doesn’t dispel the lingering impact of misinformation after it has been retracted.

So while the latest reports say Bin Laden was alone and unarmed, the majority of people are likely to believe he was firing from behind a human shield, even when they can remember the corrections.

And if this isn’t being used as a deliberate strategy to manage public opinion, I shall eat my kevlar hat.

Link to Iraq was misinformation study DOI.
pdf of full text.
Link to related 2007 WashPost piece on the persistence of myths.

27 thoughts on “Why the truth will out but doesn’t sink in”

  1. The uber vilian hiding behind a weak hostage to protect himself from a more moral adversary comes right out of the third reel of Hollywood action films.

  2. There is a typo in your Article title. It should read “Why the truth will come out but doesn’t sink in”, but instead your title and url read “why the truth will out but doesn’t sink in”.

    1. Actually, “the truth will out” is a long-used saying. It comes from Merchant of Venice. “at the length truth will out” is the full phrase used – you can look up the rest of the context.

    2. Not correct DigitizedSociety. ‘The truth will out’ is a phrase. Unless I’m missing something. Are you being funny?

  3. Interesting how the article you link to in the first paragraph doesn’t fully back your claim of “unarmed and standing alone”. The article states “Bin Laden himself then resisted the troops and was shot dead, but was not armed, he added.” So how about we get past your first “erroneous version of the story”and correct it with proper facts.

  4. Are you arguing there’s a signficant difference? I’m not arguing the rights and wrongs of this, though you clearly are. You’re clutching at straws I’m afraid DigitizedSociety, with your ‘typo’s and your unarmed resistance.

  5. I’ve always made sure I got my side of any story out first when in a dispute, because the first to tell their side gets the biased advantage. Win for me, but unfortunately, the media seems to have caught on to this (i’m sure they’ve been doing this for some time, but more so these days). They are quick to come out with a report, any report, just so it’s a report, and then mop up the errors later. Unfortunately, we get what this article spells out, misinformation that is almost impossible to be undone.

  6. I served in the Navy for 25 years. On every ship, the first reports were almost always incomplete and included wrong information. It is the fog of war. Without the 24 hour news cycle, those firts reports wouldn’t have been made public and there would only be the current version of the story. Frankly, I couldn’t care if it comes out later that osama was wearing a pink tutu, and was trying to surrender. He is dead and that is all that matters.

    1. “The fog of war” was acceptable in the past, but now we have streaming video. The politicians watching were sitting in a comfortable White House office. With snacks. What fog did they have? The pressure in HRC’s sinuses made her see Osama hiding behind a woman who wasn’t there?

      1. Well, for one thing, the video feed went down, and they were relying on relayed information for a portion of the time. Also, HRC said she has no idea exactly when the picture was taken.

        For another, more technology = more complexity = more chance of confusion. The biggest use of technology is to allow us to make mistakes more efficiently than ever before.

        I don’t recall seeing or reading about any snacks.

  7. Admiral Yamamoto, planner and commander of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was assassinated by a pin-point, long-range, targeted attack on his plane and its escorts. This was not admitted to the Allied press at the time because breaking the Japanese codes was involved, and attack targeted to get a specific individual = assassination. Please denounce this this at great length from your superior position on faith and morals.

  8. Classic cognitive dissonance model, I believe: once you get a little bit pushed over one side, you keep on sliding down the same slope in spite of everything else that comes out later ‘cos our wired need for self-justification and dissonance-avoiding. Smart strategy and disgustingly manipulative.
    (Another) great post. And great source for this kind of resistance to correct ourselves: Tavris and Aronson: “Mistakes were made (but not by me)”.

  9. I don’t think it’s a deliberate strategy, more a function of sloppy journalism and a failing ad-dependent business model. Too much pressure to have the story first and with as much sensationalism as possible to drive page views.

    Just my .02

  10. The story and the addendum are interesting because it allows us to argue about his being armed/coward or unarmed/?? It has been a deliberate strategy with the hope of getting people to ignore the more likely scenario that OBL has been dead for at least 7 years, if not longer. Just some of the reasons: no video from him in about 7 years, the live feed that President and his adviser’s were watching had a 25 minute blackout, so they could not have been watching the killing (i.e. staged), body dropped at sea (really?).

    So regarding the truth, it will not come out, just different spins to make the masses move onto the next public offering. And why the whole charade, well if one starts to inquire why the great lengths to say he was killed, then what else have they lied about?

  11. There are several aspects that we can deconstruct here:

    The “professional” policymakers, who attended the attack and provided the Administration’s *Official* statements.

    Given how very image-centered every other aspect of governance is, in this modern age, especially in the Executive branch, where all attention focuses on a single individual’s decisions and actions, I find it difficult to ascribe the clumsy messaging to incompetence.

    A second aspect is the press’s reporting of the Administration’s bungled messaging. This aspect was analyzed in great depth during the Bush regime – how the press has great incentives to push up the current Administration’s agenda. There is the commercial incentive: (simply put – NBC is owned largely by GE, who manufactures a variety of hardware, including jet engines for fighter planes and helicopters. . . and therefore has a significant interest in editorial control towards the “pro-war” stance. Similar, but more subtle arguments are made for ALL other commercial networks). Then there is the incentive that, if a network is hostile to the politics of the Administration, they can lose their White House access, or simply not be called-on during press conferences.
    So it’s very easy to see why the press complies with this.

    And the third, and perhaps most interesting aspect; the psychology of the masses – I think you can boil it down to one very simple explanation: Any American will feel emotional discomfort at the notion that their government does immoral things, (like extrajudicial executions). Therefore, on an individual level, any one of us is likely to accept a “comforting rationalization”. On a mass-population level, of course, some of us accept these comforting rationalizations at face value. Some of us question them with a neutral critical eye. Some of us reject them all out.

    I think that the whole notion of the idea that there IS such a thing as a “Fog of War” itself, is a “comforting rationalization” for the fact that horrible things happen during war, (and during non-war, where we’re at war, but don’t like to admit we’re at war, because we’re a “Peace Loving People – dig?). There is no such thing as a “Fog of War” – this is a superstitious explanation for a phenomenon. And that phenomenon is that people don’t like to hear uncomfortable truths about themselves. When we must take savage actions, to defend ourselves against savages. Or admit that, though we like to pretend we live in a civilized world, we really are all just savage beasts. We like to think we can make the choice to behave in a civilized manner. And to back that up, we “invent” bogeymen, like an “invisible hand” that causes poor people to starve and suffer, or “Satan” that causes us to steal, lie, and cheat, or a “Fog of War” that causes us to lie about what we really did when things got crazy when bombs were exploding and bullets were flying.

    But the fact is, when we had this national debate after 9/11, and the talk was about; “it’s time to take the gloves off.” – this was the choice we made. To send in a team of gunmen in the dark of the night, and shoot an unarmed man in the head in front of his family, without a trial or so much as a howdy-do.

    Some 50 million American voters re-enforced that choice in the 2004 presidential election. Like it or not. Look in the mirror, my countrymen.

    1. OBL was not unarmed. He had Allah's will with him at the time. Allah is a racist murderer who encourages the death of human beings because they say the wrong prayers. OBL was armed with commercial aircraft and his despicable theology on 9-11. The night he died he did not have the correct assets. Always bring bullets to a gun fight. Hatred and bigotry can only get an imam so far.

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