A “psychological vaccine” could inoculate against the dangers of fake news, a new study found

Fighting fake news with, well, news.
Fighting fake news with, well, news.
Image: Reuters/Chip East
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Researchers may have found a cure for fake news.

Just as vaccines immunize people by exposing them to a weakened version of a virus, psychologists found that a type of “psychological vaccine” could stop the spread of a piece of fake news by exposing people to weakened forms of it, according to a report published in Global Challenges.

The study, by researchers from the University of Cambridge, Yale University, and George Mason University, presented participants with a scientifically backed claim and a false “fact” about the socially charged issue of climate change—and examined how it affected their perspectives on the issue. It found that respondents were more likely to spot and dismiss the misinformation when it was shown to them with either a warning about fake news or a debunking of the claim.

The false “fact” was that 31,000 US scientists signed a petition that said human-caused global warming was not real—a claim that was bandied about by the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine and later disproven. The scientifically backed claim said that 97% of climate scientists agreed that human-driven climate change was real.

When exposed to the false claim on its own, respondents were 9% more likely to change their view to reject the idea of climate change. But, when it was shown to them with a warning that ”some politically motivated groups use misleading tactics to try to convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists,” the claim was weakened, and people were 6.5% more likely to shift their view in favor of the evidence-based statement that climate change was real.

People were even more likely to shift their view to believe in climate change—13% more likely—when the fake piece of news was presented to them with a detailed debunking (pdf) that noted that many of the signatures on the petition were fake. Names on the petition included Charles Darwin, members of the Spice Girls, and fictional characters from Star Wars. Fewer than 1% of those who signed the petition had experience in climate research, respondents were told.

Avoiding exposure to fake news altogether was the most effective way to contain its spread, the study found. Those who were shown the scientifically backed claim—and not the false one—were 20% more likely to change their minds and believe climate change was real. But with social media and a 24-hour news cycle, it’s not always possible to keep a lid on misinformation.

Meanwhile, when both statements were shown alongside each other without any additional analysis that argued one way or the other, the claims cancelled each other out, leaving readers with their original viewpoint on climate change.

What does this mean for news organizations fighting fake news? Merely presenting claims to audiences side-by-side doesn’t change minds, it drives people back to their original point of view. But showing both sides of the story, along with evidence against the false claim, could effectively slow the spread of fake news.