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Can people be 'inoculated' against false news?

‘Prebunking’ involves innoculating people with weaker doses of misinformation in a safe space in order to strenghten their ability to spot it in the wild.

Image: Alamy

CORRECTING A LIE can be as straightforward as telling the truth -  but one pandemic and a ‘post-fact’ Trump presidency later means we know it’s not always that simple. 

Factchecks and debunks (written by the likes of us here at The Journal) have long been relied upon as one of the main defensive tools against bad information.

If false news appears, whether it’s a comment in the Dáil or a story shared on social media, factcheckers get into the nitty-gritty to not only correct the record but show their working to prove why the ‘fact’ is or isn’t true. 

But that work takes a while. Research shows tweets containing false rumours spread faster than true rumours and that it takes around 13 hours for false information to be factchecked.

It’s not a perfect science either. Debunking claims takes time and money which means the amount of misinformation can often outstrip factcheckers’ abilities to address it all.  

There are arguments in the academic community that factchecking can even have a backfiring effect, where people end up believing the mistruth because the debunk repeats the claim which then gets implanted in people’s memories (note: a 2020 study says it doesn’t). 

Recent research from Australia says in cases where politician statements are put to the test, factchecks can actually erode trust in traditional news media.

If a politician’s statement was reported in a news story, the news story ‘itself suffers the loss of public trust’ despite the politician being the one who made the inaccurate statement, according to researchers.

The conflict in Ukraine has seen a parallel information battle take place online with the trusted factcheck formula weaponised to spread the very thing it is meant to fight – disinformation.

The Russian website WarOnFakes.com claims that it is debunking claims about civilian attacks and suspected war crimes, but is actually itself spreading disinformation. 

So is there another way to win the fight against disinformation if the tools being used don’t always do exactly what’s needed? Are there other options? 

Prebunking is the solution being floated by some academics and policy makers, a prophylactic measure that protects people from misinformation before they see it. 

The idea is to prime people to spot dodgy-sounding information off the bat to stop it spreading. This solution is grounded in inoculation theory, according to Sander van der Linden.

zt0EIoFW_400x400 Dr Sander van der Linden, University of Cambridge professor Source: Twitter

The Cambridge Professor of Social Psychology uses an analogy borrowed from biology to explain, which is handy given that two years of the pandemic has increased our shared knowledge of terms like immunisation and antibody. 

Similar to how a vaccine works, “inoculation administers a weakened dose of the virus: by pre-emptively exposing and refuting a weakened dose of the misinformation or the techniques used to spread misinformation, people can build up psychological resistance in advance,” van der Linden told The Journal

His research team uses the protected confines of online games to ‘safely’ give people a weakened dose of misinformation.

The game Bad News gets players to see how successful they can be in spreading bad information using certain tricks and techniques with the aim of getting as many followers as possible by using dodgy tactics. 

“There’s no better way to inoculate yourself than to walk a mile in the shoes of someone trying to dupe you,” van der Linden and his fellow researchers explained

If prebunking sounds a bit like good old-fashioned media literacy, there are some key differences to be aware of, says van der Linden. 

Media literacy “provides people with more facts or tips on how to spot misinformation -such as checking your sources” clarifies the expert. 

But prebunking by inoculating with that ‘weaker dose’ of the virus means “people can build up psychological resistance in advance”. 

“The mechanism here is quite different: one aims to educate broadly, the other aims to simulate an attack on people’s attitudes in the same way that vaccines simulate invading agents for the body.

The purpose is the same: to trigger an immune response,” said van der Linden.  

In the game Bad News, players advance from an attention-grabbing dodgy tweet to how to build an ersatz news outlet and make it look credible to gain maximum followers. 

Screenshot 2022-04-28 at 13.47.40 The Bad News start page

If players chose the wrong content to post they lose followers and messages chastising the player for not using any manipulation techniques appear.

“Lets make people mad by attacking something,” encourages the game before giving you the option to ‘personally attack climate scientists’ via your choice of meme or article. 

“What basic emotion do you want to exploit next?” asks the screen afterwards, letting you choose between ‘fear’ and ‘anger.’ 

Screenshot 2022-04-28 at 13.46.33 The interactive game Bad News asks players to create disinformation to get maximum followers and shows them how Source: Bad News

Van der Linden, who helped develop the game, says getting people to think about how they might be manipulated works better to stop the spread of misinformation than broad but vague reminders to ‘think before you post.’ 

Simple false tags or warnings don’t tell people why the information is wrong or what is true instead.

For debunks to work appropriately, it is helpful to have a credible alternative explanation that can fill in the gap that is created in people’s memory when you tell them that something is false.

Otherwise people will just continue to believe what they thought was true before.

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Proactive + reaction

Factchecks and debunks still have a role to play in prebunking, stresses van der Linden, but they do have limitations.

Despite seeing the correction, “people continue to retrieve false details from memory,” he says. 

“This has to do with the way our memories work. Once we integrate false knowledge, it is very difficult to correct and disentangle,” he said. 

For that reason, van der Linden maintains that “it is best to try to combine proactive (eg prebunking) and reactive (eg debunking) approaches”. 

“For example, you might want to explain the fake expert or conspiracy technique [behind a false news story] instead of just saying that a claim is false.

“In other words, it is important to go beyond the facts and explain the larger manipulation strategy at play.”

Ethan Porter and Thomas Wood, two political scientists and university academics in the US, set out to test the effectiveness of factchecks at a time in the country’s history where ‘truth’ and ‘facts’ were at their most contentious. 

They conducted 13 studies involving over 10,000 participants conducted from the 2016 election in Trump’s presidency.

The results were ‘unambiguous’, wrote Porter and Wood in Politico

“Those who saw factual corrections were substantially more likely to express factually accurate beliefs than those who did not see corrections,” they said. 

However, the researchers pointed out several caveats, including the lack of evidence that suggests corrections change political beliefs and that factchecks are more likely to be endorsed if they don’t challenge a person’s core beliefs.  

“Even though factchecks generally improve accuracy, there is little evidence that Americans are consuming such factchecks in sufficiently large numbers.” they wrote. 

While factchecks are here to stay in the fight against bad information, prebunking might be an effective pre-emptive strike. 

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here. 

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