People can be inoculated against misinformation, just like they can against COVID-19, judging by new research. And they don’t have to get jabbed in the arm.
Rather, they can be dissuaded from believing fake news by “prebunking”—videos that use humor and other creative techniques to gently prevent people from believing misinformation that they see online, according to Jon Roozenbeek, Sander Van Der Linden and Stephen Lewandowsky.
The authors developed “five prebunking videos, each lasting less than two minutes, which aimed to immunize viewers against a different manipulation technique or logical fallacy,” they write in Nieman Lab. “As part of the project, we launched a website where people can watch and download these videos.”
One such ad, on emotional manipulation, starts by showing a child with a teddy bear.
They then ran six experiments with about 6,400 participants in a lab. Those in the control group saw an unrelated video on freezer burn.
People who saw these videos were “significantly less liable to manipulation than the control participants,” they continue.
The researchers also expanded the experiment on YouTube, reaching an estimated 1 million viewers.
Using YouTube’s BrandLift engagement tool, they asked viewers who saw a prebunking video to answer “one multiple-choice question. The question assessed their ability to identify a manipulation technique in a news headline.”
The authors add, “We also had a control group, which answered the same survey question but didn’t see the prebunking video. We found the prebunking group was 5%-10% better than the control group at correctly identifying misinformation, showing that this approach improves resilience even in a distracting environment like YouTube.”
What is the logic behind this?
“Inoculation theory is the notion that you can forge psychological resistance against attempts to manipulate you, much like a medical vaccine is a weakened version of a pathogen that prompts your immune system to create antibodies,” they explain. “Prebunking interventions are mostly based on this theory."
The research team continues: “Most models have focused on counteracting individual examples of misinformation, such as posts about climate change. However, in recent years researchers including ourselves have explored ways to inoculate people against the techniques and tropes that underlie much of the misinformation we see online.”
How so? “Such techniques include the use of emotive language to trigger outrage and fear, or the scapegoating of people and groups for an issue they have little-to-no control over,” they state.
Mere debunking has several drawbacks because it’s often difficult to establish what the truth is. Fact-checks also frequently fail to reach the people who are most likely to believe the misinformation, and getting people to accept fact-checks can be challenging, especially if people have a strong political identity.
When trying to build resistance, it is better to avoid “being too direct in telling people what to believe, because that might trigger something called psychological reactance,” the authors conclude. “Reactance means that people feel their freedom to make decisions is being threatened, leading to them digging their heels in and rejecting new information. Inoculation theory is about empowering people to make their own decisions about what to believe.”