Scientists have developed a novel psychological “vaccine” to immunise the public against the damaging “virus” of fake news and misinformation on websites and social media. In medicine, vaccinating against a virus involves exposing a body to a weakened version of the threat, enough to build a tolerance. Researchers, including those from University of Cambridge in the UK, believe that a similar logic can be applied to help “inoculate” the public against misinformation, including the damaging influence of ‘fake news’ websites propagating myths about climate change. A new study published in the journal Global Challenges compared reactions to a well-known climate change fact with those to a popular misinformation campaign.
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When presented consecutively, the false material completely cancelled out the accurate statement in people’s minds – opinions ended up back where they started. Researchers then added a small dose of misinformation to delivery of the climate change fact, by briefly introducing people to distortion tactics used by certain groups. This “inoculation” helped shift and hold opinions closer to the truth – despite the follow-up exposure to ‘fake news’.
The study on US attitudes found the inoculation technique shifted the climate change opinions of Republicans, Independents and Democrats alike. It is one of the first on ‘inoculation theory’ to try and replicate a ‘real world’ scenario of conflicting information on a highly politicised subject, researchers said. “Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus,” said Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at Cambridge.
“We wanted to see if we could find a ‘vaccine’ by pre-emptively exposing people to a small amount of the type of misinformation they might experience. A warning that helps preserve the facts.
“The idea is to provide a cognitive repertoire that helps build up resistance to misinformation, so the next time people come across it they are less susceptible,” said van der Linden.