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Scientists Claim They've Developed a Psychological 'Vaccine' Against Fake News

Inoculating against misinformation.

JOSH HRALA
24 JAN 2017
 

Scientists say they’ve developed a psychological 'vaccine' for fake news, which can be used to inoculate the public against misinformation.

"Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus," said lead researcher, Sander van der Linden from the University of 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 team amassed more than 2,000 national representative US residents, from various ages, genders, political leanings, and education levels.

They began by examining their thoughts on climate change - a politically charged issue often compromised with misinformation, despite having a solid grounding in facts and research.

The researchers presented the group with a number of scientifically sound climate change facts in the form of statements, such as "97 percent of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused global warming is happening".

They also presented the group with misinformation taken from an Oregon petition that is known to be fraudulent, which states that "31,000 American scientists state that there is no evidence that human-released CO2 causes climate change".

After hearing these statements, the participants were asked to estimate what they thought the current level of scientific agreement was on climate change to see how hearing different information might sway their personal opinions.

The team found that those who were shown the accurate information - in the form of a pie chart - described the scientific consensus to be "very high", and those shown only the misinformation reported it "very low", which makes sense, because these are the only facts they were going by.

 

But a rather disconcerting discovery came when the team showed the factually correct pie chart, followed by the misinformation to the same group.

It turned out that seeing both statements effectively cancelled each other out, putting people back to a state of indecision.

"It's uncomfortable to think that misinformation is so potent in our society," said van der Linden.

"A lot of people's attitudes toward climate change aren't very firm. 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."

While the team was gathering this 'consensus data', they also gave two groups in the study two different types of psychological vaccines.

The first type - which they call a "general inoculation" - came as a warning statement, which read: "Some politically-motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists."

The second was a bit more leading, picking apart the misinformation to show how it was fraudulent. Specifically, that only 1 percent of the signatories on the Oregon petition had a background in climate science. This was called the "detailed inoculation".

In the end, they found that the general inoculation boosted participant’s accuracy in guessing the percentage of scientific consensus by 6.5 percent. With the addition of the detailed inoculation, that figure jumped to 13 percent.

This suggests that the inoculation worked to help stop the spread of misinformation by giving them the tools to accurately identify the science. These findings were true across political parties, too, which is a major issue right now in the US.

"We found that inoculation messages were equally effective in shifting the opinions of Republicans, Independents and Democrats in a direction consistent with the conclusions of climate science," said van der Linden.

"What's striking is that, on average, we found no backfire effect to inoculation messages among groups predisposed to reject climate science, they didn't seem to retreat into conspiracy theories."

Still, the team does say that there will always be those among us who are unwilling to change their views.

"There will always be people completely resistant to change, but we tend to find there is room for most people to change their minds, even just a little," said van der Linden.

The team says when talking about politically charged topics such as climate change, researchers should provide a statement explaining the complex political opposition to it, which would encourage more people to identify the scientific strength of the research.

There's no word how this sort of inoculation could work, say, in your Facebook feed, though having the knowledge that people will accept the truth when presented with fact and discussion is nice to see.

The research was published in Global Challenges.

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