I was driving around one day in Cyprus, doing some chores, and listening to the radio. As I was pottering along sedately, the radio presenter, in conversation with a guest, repeated a Euromyth, as if it was common sense, or the received wisdom.

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The human mind was said by the experts and orators of old to work in mysterious ways. Those ways are not so mysterious anymore, but nonetheless they remain counterintuitive. Often, we remain ignorant of how to prevent misinformation from spreading. Instead, with our actions we inadvertedly help it to spread.

It struck me that I had head this particular supposed foible of Europe mentioned with the same terminology in the UK press. And indeed, Cyprus is a strange member-state. Most Cypriots only know Greek and English. With our lack of European languages (other than Greek) our journalists gain a perspective on Europe through the press of the Anglosphere.

I am not going to repeat the Euromyth the presenter mentioned, as the evidence shows it would be counterproductive for countering it. We have seen though that particular myth and others spreading, in a sign of European powerlessness. And the myths continue to spread, leading to increased Euroscepticism. However, there are ways to try and halt the propagation of Euromyths.

Some research on how to fight misinformation from a different field

You may be a supporter of Europe. You could also be someone who would prefer to have an informed debate on the issues, rather than an uninformed one.

There has been a lot of research on how to avoid spreading myths and misinformation. And the research has been in a variety of topics. The World Health Organisation (WHO) faces its own struggles against misinformation. Some of their opponents in safeguarding public health are those who spread untruths (that is, lies) about the efficacy and safety of vaccines. In 2016, WHO Europe prepared a Best Practice Guideline for Health Professionals who are tackling vaccine hesitancy amongst the public. Some of its lessons are applicable for those who wish to prevent the spread of misinformation regarding our Union.

In particular, I stand on two points from the guidance, in the interest of brevity. Firstly, there are concentric circles of conviction. There is an almost zero probability of changing the mind of the inner circle, who are the most vocal about their Euroscepticism. However the mass of people that must be targeted, to armour Europe against those who would seek to destroy us, are those may be receptive to the Eurosceptic message yet are hesitant. From the discussion heard on the radio, the presenter of the show did not sound as if she is one of the true believers. She sounded like someone who was repeating what they had heard, as a truth.

Secondly, and counter-intuitively, we must not repeat misinformation, even if our aim is to counter it. In the guidance, it states “If you repeat the… information, it can inadvertedly reinforce the misinformation you seek to correct”. There is an evidence base that supports this. Repeating misinformation helps propagate it, regardless of the speaker’s intent.

If the listener is already aware of it, it reinforces the malicious message. If the listener is not, it plants a seed of doubt and enables to build a false view on the topic more easily.

After all, as many a revising student has heard, “repetition makes messages easier to remember”.

You can find the first point regarding concentric circles of belief on pgs 8-9 of the guidance, and the second point on repeating misinformation on pg 25. The guidance includes in the footnotes the evidence base on which this recommendation is based.

Crédit photo: Markos Loizou

Nicolas Mavreas was born on what later became Europe’s eastern frontier, on the island of Cyprus. He lived through Europe’s enlargement and the turmoil of the early 2010’s. After completing his two-year compulsory national service, he went to the University of Cambridge to study. He observed the Brexit debate and result. Being a European in another member-state sharpened his awareness of the European “we” and spurred on a search to understand the European interest.