Psychologists Have Discovered a Way to 'Inoculate' People Against Fake News

Researchers found that people are generally better at recognizing fake news once they understand how it's generated and used to manipulate people.
January 24, 2017, 12:36am
Image via Flickr user Tony Markham

Thanks to a presidential administration that defends "alternative facts" as something other than just a synonym for lies, fake news and the intentional spread of misinformation is on the rise. Recently, a few researchers from Cambridge, Yale, and George Mason University decided to study the way people succumb to this epidemic and found a method to help stop its spread that's similar to how doctors use vaccines.

In the study, the researchers presented 2,000 American participants with two different claims about global warming—one was a factual pie chart showing that 97 percent of scientists agree about man-made climate change, and the other was a bogus petition that says "human-caused global warming hypothesis is without scientific validity" and is signed with thousands of fake signatures from names like Charles Darwin and the Spice Girls.

Scientists found that when people were presented with just the factual pie chart, they were 20 percent more likely to agree that there was a scientific consensus about climate change. When participants were presented with just the misinformation, they were 9 percent more likely to believe global warming has no scientific validity. When participants were presented with both pieces of information back-to-back, most people's opinions didn't change from when they began the experiment.

"A lot of people's attitudes toward climate change aren't very firm," lead study author Sander van der Linden said following the experiment. "They are aware there is a debate going on, but aren't necessarily sure what to believe. Conflicting messages can leave them feeling back at square one."

However, when scientists introduced a general warning about misinformation to people, in the same way a vaccine introduces a virus to the body, people were generally better at recognizing the fake news.

Researchers did that by offering extra data alongside the factual information, explaining that politically charged groups often try to convince the public that there's disagreement among scientists and often employ distortion tactics—like fake signatures—to manipulate people. When participants then saw the bogus petition after the pie chart, they were more likely to regard it as fake and were then 6.5 percent more likely to agree there was a scientific consensus on climate change.

"Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus," van der Linden said. "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."

The good news is the inoculation worked equally well regardless of the person's political affiliation (even though Republicans were statistically more likely to be swayed by false information regarding climate change than Democrats). Guess that means now journalists have to warn everyone about "alternative facts" and fake news tactics when presenting their own fact-based reporting.