August 2, 2022 / Ed Rutkowski

Can People Be “Inoculated” Against Misinformation?

At AIHce EXP 2022, presenter Dana Stahl discussed the many ways the COVID-19 pandemic has confounded the expectations of emergency preparedness professionals. One of the main problems that planners hadn’t considered was the difficulty of communicating effectively. Stahl mentioned distrust of government and the speed with which social media allows misinformation and disinformation to flourish as elements of the current pandemic that planners didn’t anticipate.

For scientists and communicators, the problems of misinformation (incorrect information) and disinformation (intentionally deceptive information) can seem depressingly intractable. A growing body of research indicates that simply providing the facts won’t persuade people to accept scientific truth. (This just-the-facts approach is based on what’s known as the “deficit model,” a seemingly rational theory of science communication that turns out to be completely wrong.) Similarly, research has shown that attempting to correct misinformation and disinformation after people have been exposed to it is ineffective and may actually help perpetuate the falsehoods. This phenomenon is known as the continued influence effect, or CIE, which a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences defines as “the tendency for information that is initially presented as true, but later revealed to be false, to continue to affect memory and reasoning.”

If debunking falsehoods doesn’t work, what’s left to do? The answer, some researchers believe, may lie in “pre-bunking”—that is, preparing people for the kinds of misinformation and disinformation they are likely to encounter so they can resist it. During a webinar last month sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA), Sander van der Linden, a professor in the department of psychology and head of the Social Decision-Making Lab at the University of Cambridge, described pre-bunking as a kind of psychological “inoculation” against misinformation and disinformation. Pre-bunking, van der Linden said, presents weakened versions of what people might encounter online—for example, fake experts, conspiracy theories, and charged language—to build up “cognitive antibodies” so they can fight off misinformation and disinformation when they come across it.

To spread these cognitive antibodies to the widest possible audience, van der Linden and his colleagues at the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab have gamified the idea of pre-bunking. In 2018 they launched Bad News, a game intended to teach people how to spot fake news. An initial assessment of the game’s effectiveness published in Nature found that playing Bad News just once decreased the perceived reliability of fake news by an average of 21 percent. These promising results were supported by a more thorough review published in the Journal of Cognition.

Van der Linden and his team have since launched a new game, Go Viral!, which takes the basic premise of Bad News and updates it for the world of COVID-19. Go Viral! demonstrates how social media encourages the use of language that appeals to negative emotions, how real news gets discredited, and how fake authorities help perpetuate false information. “[B]y giving people a taste of the techniques used to spread fake news on social media,” according to the Social Decision-Making Lab, the game “increases their ability to identify and disregard misinformation in the future.”

During the APA webinar, van der Linden and other panelists suggested that pre-bunking alone won’t solve all the problems related to misinformation and disinformation. But pre-bunking has the virtue of being proactive. In the age of Twitter, chasing down falsehoods and half-truths is enormously time-consuming and ensures that science communicators are always a step or three behind.

Previous SynergistNOW blog posts on science communication includeFrequencies and Fact Boxes: Techniques in Science Communication,”New Research on Scientific Misinformation,” “Communicating About Vaccines,” “Science and Storytelling,” and Talking about Science: Goodbye—and Good Riddance—to the Deficit Model.

Ed Rutkowski

Ed Rutkowski is editor-in-chief of The Synergist.


Thank you for your thoughtful response, Phil!

By Ed Rutkowski on August 2, 2022 4:56pm

Excellent review Ed, of the ‘new normal’, dare I say ‘twilight zone’ we professionals now find ourselves facing. Almost every day we receive enquiries from people who claim to have IAQ issues that they believe are affecting their health because some so called expert or health professional found a tenuous link between a previous water damage event and their current condition. These charlatans are not experts in our field, they don’t have they years of training or expertise founded on the the things we got right and more importantly the things we got wrong, to make these determinations and they rule out every other possibility that could be attributed to their clients ill health. So when we present the real scientific facts rather than simply validating what these folks have already been told, we’re met with hostility because the results from our proven process and scientific instruments don’t match the fake news they already paid good money for. We will certainly look to follow your excellent advice above and see if we can re-educate people who seem to have lost all faith in ‘real experts’ and prefer to believe the charm of the Snake Oil Salesmen.

By Phil Edwards on August 2, 2022 3:33pm

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