Critical thinking protects Ukrainians again

In disinformation campaigns, like the Russian government’s long-running pro-Kremlin campaign against Ukraine, who is most at risk of believing false information? A study conducted by McGill University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that Ukrainians who engaged more in analytical thinking were less likely to believe the pro-Kremlin disinformation, even if they were generally pro-Russia.

“Ukraine is a challenging case to test the relationship between reasoning and the ability to see through disinformation. It is a unique information space because of the high volume of disinformation attacks from Russia and its history of distrust of institutions – which makes it very different from the western democracies, where most studies on disinformation have been conducted,” says Aaron Erlich, assistant professor at the Institute of Political Science from McGill University.

While previous research in the US has linked greater analytical thinking to the ability to spot untruths, it was not previously known if this would be the case in information spaces like that in Ukraine. The study published in political psychology uses representative samples of Ukrainians online and face-to-face.

Belief in disinformation is more likely to be fueled by lazy thinking

The researchers found that people who rely more on quick judgments — rather than engaging in critical thinking — are more likely to believe in disinformation, whether or not it aligns with their political ideology.

“The results show a similar pattern to previous research on disinformation campaigns in the US. Despite low trust in government and media, weak journalistic standards, and years of exposure to Russian disinformation, Ukrainians who think more analytically are better able to tell the truth than untruth,” says David Rand, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management .

“Analytical thinking is the ability to tackle complicated problems by evaluating collected information. People who engage critically with information, for example by looking for evidence to support claims and assessing the plausibility of arguments, were more likely to discern truth from falsity,” says Professor Erlich.

The (dis)information environment of Ukraine

Understanding Ukraine’s legacy as a post-communist country is important, the researchers say. As a result of state control of the media, many post-communist societies like Ukraine tend to have low levels of trust in both the state and media institutions. That environment, combined with a Kremlin’s intensified disinformation campaign since 2014, has likely made it even harder for Ukrainians, especially online, to distinguish fact from disinformation, the researchers say.

Tackling disinformation with critical thinking

“We found strong evidence that critical thinking helps curb belief in disinformation. This is cause for optimism in Ukraine, which has a long history of fabricated news and pro-Kremlin disinformation. Our study sheds light on how we can further improve the information environment in countries facing similar disinformation campaigns,” says Professor Rand.

About this study

“Does analytic thinking insulate against pro-Kremlin disinformation? Evidence from Ukraine” by Aaron Erlich, Calvin Garner, Gordon Pennycook and David Rand was published in political psychology.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12819


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