Vaccinating against falsehood to revive fact

“Denzel Washington and Pope Francis endorse Donald Trump”; “Leaving the EU would lead to a 350 million pound bonus for the NHS”.

Which of these was real?

Both were proven to be fake. But at the time the stories broke, many people believed them to be true. With the rise of fake news circulating on social media and online, there is a growing difficulty in distinguishing fact from fiction.

“It’s uncomfortable to think that misinformation is so potent in our society”, says Dr. Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge.

Van der Linden is the lead author of a study which demonstrated a potential solution in the fight against fake news, which he describes as a physical ailment: “Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus”.

Credited with influencing the election of Donald Trump and the results of the Brexit referendum, fake news is defined as news without evidence to back up the claim. The news could either be pure fiction, general misinformation, or an exaggeration of a fact. In some cases, the news stories were fabricated with a political or economic motive in mind.

Van der Linden and his research team’s solution is a vaccine.

In medicine, vaccines work by giving the person a small dose of the actual virus. The small dose allows the body to create antibodies which defend the person’s body against the virus if they catch it in the future.

The research team’s method applies this principle to fake news. While previous methods of preventing the spread of fake news have been to eradicate the fake news before it reaches a mass public, van der Linden suggests we instead expose people to small ‘doses’ of fake news that act as a warning signal which makes people less susceptible to ‘catching’ (believing) fake news.

The study involved exposing 2,000 US residents, with diverse backgrounds, to varying amounts of facts and misinformation about climate change. Dividing the residents into groups, people were exposed to: only facts, only misinformation, facts followed by misinformation, or facts with a small amount of misinformation in the form of a warning or detailed breakdown of why the misinformation is incorrect.

Those given only facts or misinformation, were likely to believe whichever information they were given.

The other groups had more interesting results.

The research team discovered that when fact and misinformation are given consecutively, the misinformation cancels out the fact, and people are less likely to sway from their original positions on the topic.

“A lot of people’s attitudes toward climate change aren’t very firm. They are aware there is debate going on but aren’t necessarily sure what to believe,” says van der Linden

“Conflicting messages can leave them feeling back at square one,” he continues.

However, when people were told facts (97% of scientists agree on climate science) with a small amount of misinformation (there is a petition against climate change with 31,000 signatures) as a warning or explanation of the inaccuracy of the information (only 1% of the petition signatures are from climate scientists), more people were likely to believe the facts, even after exposure to fake news.

Van der Linden’s vaccine highlights an important need in our post-truth world: If we can’t eradicate fake news, we can at least teach people how to spot and ultimately reject it.

Image: Vivian Uhlir

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