According to social psychologist Dr. Sander van der Linden, “Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus.” Therefore, new research has found that treating it like an actual virus may do the trick.
The research focused on fake news about climate change, though the model can potentially be applied anywhere else to “inoculate” the public against misinformation. It discovered that when two types of information are presented consecutively, the wrong information would completely cancel out what was said before. In other words, the opinion would go full circle.
So the solution would then be to introduce small amounts of misinformation together with the correct information. They would stand out obviously, and act not as distortion, but as something the mind could immediately compare with the correct information, preventing a shift of the resulting opinion to either side too strongly.
Regardless of any follow-up exposure to fake news, the method would still do the trick, researchers discovered.
“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,” van der Linden went on.
The point was to create “a cognitive repertoire that helps build up resistance to misinformation,” thereby weakening its effect the next time around.
The researchers tested their hypothesis – the so-called ‘inoculation theory’ – by inventing a pretend scenario that would closely mimic the dynamics of misinformation on a highly-publicized subject as they play out in real life.
The study was performed on Republicans, Democrats and Independents equally, and achieved a high degree of efficacy with their sample size of 2,000 people. The participants were all given popular false statements on prominent topics. Each was rated for familiarity and the persuasiveness of its arguments.
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In the end, results showed that the most popular falsehood was that there is no scientific consensus on climate change being caused by man, or that the CO2 we release will directly lead to it. This was exemplified by the Global Warming Petition Project, which claims to have conducted a test to find that “over 31,000 American scientists” support the view that there is no singular consensus.
Another, correct statement was also used: that “97 percent of scientists agree on manmade climate change.” The decision to use this was inspired by van der Linden’s previous work, which proved that scientific consensus has a bigger chance of influencing people.
The 2,000 participants were then secretly tested on their attitudes on the online Amazon Mechanical Turk platform. They were gauged for changes in opinion over time – but some people were shown only one statement, while others were shown the opposing view.
It was found that viewing the correct opinion on consensus led to a 20-percent increase in agreement. Those only shown the incorrect view (by way of a screenshot from the erroneous website poll) changed their views negatively by a total of nine percentage points. However, most surprisingly, the group shown the two views in succession was found to be exactly on the fence, figure-wise. Thus, the incorrect view evened things out.
Van der Linden finds it “uncomfortable to think that misinformation is so potent in our society. 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,” he added.
After these results were in, two of the groups were used to hand-pick individuals who would then be given a dose of inoculation by way of two strong statements in support of the correct conclusion: one – that there are “some politically-motivated groups [using] misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists”; and two – that most of the people who signed the quasi-scientific Oregon petition were none other than celebrities, or people with no science background whatsoever.
This tactic was found to work like a charm: for, even after being presented with the incorrect poll, the inoculation evened things back out, and turned the respondents back against climate change deniers. The ‘inoculation’ was found to raise the percentage of those agreeing with the scientifically-sound view by 6.5 percentage points.
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Of the two above statements intended to inoculate the public, the second one belonged to the category of ‘detailed inoculation’. And it raised the average positive shift in opinion by nearly 13 percent. By using names, professions and specifics on respondents to the unscientific poll, researchers were able to further invalidate its conclusions.
While the study is certainly among the first of its kind, the scientists warned that such tactics had previously already been used by fossil fuel and tobacco companies to increase public disagreement with scientists and doctors and their warnings.
The positive conclusion, however, is that the same can be done to reverse the incorrect views. Van der Linden is not altogether surprised, as his entire premise was based on the view that there is, after all, room for change in even the most stubborn individual.