Disinform, rinse, repeat: an effective radio tactic

It has become clear that both sides of the American political aisle use psychological concepts and research in their talking points. In our most recent article, we highlighted the benefits of embedding a psychological perspective in political podcasts and opinion pieces, especially those dealing with conflict and division. Unfortunately, psychological research can also be applied in harmful ways.

Dan Bongino Psychology Training

Dan Bongino has become an increasingly central figure in right-wing media. A former US Secret Service agent, Bongino has an extremely popular Facebook page, podcast and Fox News show. Bongino also took over Rush Limbaugh’s radio timeslot in May 2021, further expanding his vast media reach. As of last month, subscribers to his podcast numbered more than 2 million and more than 8.5 million people listen to his radio show each week.

The rise of a previously unknown media personality isn’t all that surprising these days, but we were surprised to learn that Bongino has a background in psychology. He earned BS and MS degrees in Psychology from Queens College “with a concentration in Neuropsychology and Behavioral Learning”. It is unclear whether Bongino deliberately and explicitly uses his background in psychology in his work; however, whether he knows it or not, he uses an effective technique: repetition (as so many radio and podcast hosts do).

Repetition and illusory truth effect

Bongino is really good at repeating himself. This is important because it turns out that repetition is one of the main culprits of making people believe misinformation. Numerous experiments have shown that repeated information is considered more true than information heard for the first time (Fazio et al., 2015).

Psychologist Lisa Fazio and her colleagues have shown that this illusory truth effect enriched by repetitions. Fazio’s research team randomly assigned participants to read false “facts” that were either new (stated once) or repeated; the fake “facts” were about topics both known and unknown to the participant. For example, “The Minotaur is the legendary one-eyed giant of Greek mythology” is a false “fact” that participants tended to be aware of, realizing that it is in fact the Cyclops being described. A false “fact” that is generally unknown is that “Billy the Kid’s last name is Garrett”. Most of us wouldn’t know that her last name was actually Bonney.

Participants then rated the truthfulness of each of these statements on a scale of 1 (completely false) to 6 (completely true). Repeated statements, even about known false facts, received higher average truth ratings. As the researchers explain, “reading a statement like ‘A sari is the name of the short pleated skirt worn by the Scots’ increased participants’ later belief that it was true, even if they could answer correctly to the question ‘What is the name of the short pleated skirt worn by the Scots?’ »

It’s a terrible trick of the human brain that repetition can have this negative effect, and it’s part of what has led to political division in the United States. Why does this happen? The researchers accuse neglect of knowledge, the inability to use our own store of facts when faced with something that just seems true because of repetition. Perhaps the reason people often don’t do this is simply the cognitive effort required to remember and apply our knowledge in the moment – it’s cognitively expensive, as the authors describe.

The researchers also point out that the knowledge neglect phenomenon is quite widespread, citing the Moses delusion in which people are asked, “How many animals of each species did Moses take into the ark?” Most people answer without thinking “two”, even though they probably know that this story was actually about Noah, not Moses.

Rehearsal and media

Back to Bongino and his ability to repeat himself. In an interview with Slate, New Yorker writer Evan Osnos pointed out that “[Bongino’s] the show’s repetitive nature is actually part of its appeal,” citing research that suggests listeners will tune out if there’s too much variety. (Listeners at the top 40 stations likely recognize the repetition that drives the lists of reading.) Osnos points out that repetition has increased in talk radio “To the point that now you hear people repeating the same messages over and over. But when it comes to political messaging, it has the effect of changing people’s perceptions, because one of the things we know – every dictator and cheerleader gets this early on – is that repetition has a very powerful cognitive impact. It makes you start to see things as more important, larger, more dominant. Osnos describes the illusory truth effect. And he sees this phenomenon as central to Bongino’s popularity. Repetition, says Osnos, “is at the heart of [Bongino’s] product.”

Bongino is sometimes careful to avoid outright misinformation, but when it comes to the pandemic he has been less cautious and was recently permanently banned from YouTube for repeatedly posting misinformation about coronaviruses, including the false fact that masks are useless. So it was repetition that got Bongino started from YouTube, but it retains access to many other platforms.

There’s not much we can do to stop the seemingly endless repetition of misinformation, but Fazio and his colleagues give us a ray of hope against our very human tendency to believe repeating things. (In fact, we’re repeating ourselves here in an attempt to make the case for the power of repetition. We’ve written about repetition several times for Misinformation Desk. Do you still believe us?)

Certain contexts, Fazio and his colleagues explain, such as when people are asked to check facts, can prompt us to make the cognitive effort to apply our existing knowledge. It might be too much to ask, but social media and other media platforms might inspire us to listen and read through a fact-checking lens. In a previous post, we wrote about behavioral nudges like this, including a plan by Twitter to get people to read an article before retweeting. It can be cognitively inexpensive to simply believe repeated untruths, but short-term savings can have long-term consequences.