Can we really vaccinate against fake news?

The Internet is home to a lot of great information, but it’s also home to a growing amount of fake news. This is especially distressing for science communicators who work to portray the gravity of climate change, a subject of pervasive conspiracy theories.

Recent work by Sander van der Linden, Anthony Leiserowitz, Seth Rosenthal, & Edward Maibach suggests that communicators may be able to “vaccinate” their audiences against climate change misinformation. There are some good summaries of the work available, so mine will be brief.

Finding #1: Some people saw (true) information that 97% of scientists agree on manmade climate change. As a result, their own beliefs in the scientific consensus about climate change increased.
Others saw the fake news (which is really published on the Internet, not made up by the authors) about the Oregon Global Warming Petition Project, which claims that over 30,000 scientists have signed an agreement to reject global warming. Their beliefs in the scientific consensus on climate change decreased.

This first finding is a kind of sanity check: when people read information telling them scientists either do or not agree on global warming, their beliefs shift toward the information they receive.

Finding #2: If people read about scientists’ 97% agreement on global warming followed by the fake news petition project, their views on scientific consensus were unchanged from their pre-study views. The true and false information canceled each other out.

Finding #3: The vaccine condition. Some people received extra information along with the 97% agreement info (considered to be an information “vaccine”). Those people read: “some politically-motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists.” When people read the vaccine + the info that 97% of scientists agree on global warming + the petition project, they still tended to agree more with the scientific consensus than when they had started — not as much as those who only read about the 97% scientific consensus, but more than others who received both the real and fake news (without the info vaccine).

 

Finding #4: The super-vaccine condition. A final group of people received the petition project and the 97% message with the vaccine mentioned in the previous paragraph, PLUS an additional message that specifically addressed the petition project, instead of solely stating a general conspiracy theorist tactic. This message picked apart the petition project, pointing out things like fraudulent signatures. When people received this specific message along with the general vaccine and the conflicting news messages, they were even more likely to shift their views in favor of the scientific consensus than if they had just received the general vaccine with the conflicting messages on scientific consensus.

People can be encouraged to recognize fake news for what it is and discount its message appropriately. This is good news for science communicators, since we can’t eradicate fake news. But this work opens up so many important questions about how this information vaccination might work outside a carefully crafted experiment:

  • How can science communicators disseminate their information vaccines? Most of us are only exposed to information we already agree with (whether we seek it out or it’s tailored to us, for example in a Facebook feed). How can communicators even reach a Breitbart reader with an information vaccine?
    Schools seem to be an obvious place for these warning message vaccines, but very few voting-age Americans are still in school. It will be too late if we have to wait a generation until a significant fraction of voters have been inoculated before taking drastic steps to improve global warming.
  • Relatedly, who should deliver the inoculation messages? Message will probably be less effective if coming from someone that people are poised to distrust (for example, a climate scientist).
  • How often do information inoculations need to be administered? In the experiments, people read the warning messages about conspiracy theorist tactics and the petition project’s fraudulent tactics at the same time as reading about the scientific consensus. In real life, it would be nearly impossible for this kind of warning message to accompany fake news. If it’s been days, weeks, months, or years since someone has been reminded of the tactics that conspiracy theorists use, will they still be inoculated?
  • Further, what are the properties of a successful information vaccine? The studies reported here stuck with the same messages, but there are tons of things someone could write to warn others about fake news. What’s the most successful way to approach this issue?

This work is encouraging because I’ve often heard that when trying to debunk conspiracy theories, it can be dangerous to even bring up the specific theory you’re arguing against, since some people’s beliefs will be strengthened just by the mention of the inaccuracy. We’re all prone to confirmation bias, the tendency to seek information that confirms what we already believe and to consider opposing information to be biased or inaccurate. This work shows us that fake news can be debunked — we just have to learn more about how to actually do it.


Featured cartoon by Susan Nasif, Virology Comics.

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2 comments

  1. Nice post! Another approach that I’m very hopeful about is simply detecting and eliminating fake news. Apple & Facebook are already starting this.

    In my eyes, this is no different than the spam filter tech that had to be done for the email experience to work for everybody. The technology is so good these days, it doesn’t seem like a hard problem to me… it’s more about the willingness to do it.

    1. Yea, I agree. Though the gray area (when does a piece become opinion vs. fake news?) will make detection messy. Probably most promising would be to set up a first line of defense that detects + eliminates true fake news, and then equip people to assess the things that make it through that filter. Though supposedly this is already a thing people are taught in schools…?

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