With Training, We Can Learn to Spot Fake News

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Fake news is a real problem. Now researchers say we may be able to inoculate ourselves against real-looking fabrications the same way we would against any other epidemic. They published their findings in the aptly named journal Global Challenges.

Lead author Sander van der Linden is a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge. “Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus,” he said in a statement. “We wanted to see if we could find a ‘vaccine’ by preemptively exposing people to a small amount of the type of misinformation they might experience.”

Van der Linden and his colleagues at Cambridge and George Mason University recruited 2167 participants from across the United States and asked them to rate their familiarity and agreement with a variety of statements about climate change. Some were true, such as: “97% of scientists agree on manmade climate change.” Others were falsehoods created and spread by disinformation campaigns, such as: “There is no consensus on human-caused climate change."

Some people were shown just the facts; others saw only the falsehoods. Others saw a combination of both in varying proportions. As the participants read through the materials, they were asked repeatedly if scientists agreed about human-made global warming, in order to judge which stories they believed.

The results were what you might expect. Being shown only the facts increased participants’ understanding that there is scientific consensus by 20 percentage points. The folks who only saw the falsehoods experienced a 9-percent drop in that understanding.

Showing participants fact and fiction at the same time had worrisome results: fiction seemed to cancel fact out. This is especially problematic at a time when many media outlets insist on presenting a false “balance” on issues like climate change, even though the facts are clearly piled up on one side of the scale: climate change is real and caused by us.

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

But there’s good (real) news. The researchers also gave one subgroup of people an ‘inoculation’: a warning that “some politically motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists.”

It worked. People who were given this fake-news vaccine reported a 6.5-percent increase in their understanding that there is scientific consensus on climate change even after they’d read misinformation. Remarkably, this effect held strong even among people who were predisposed to reject climate science.

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