Is there a way to protect yourself from fake news? Researchers think they've found one. It works just like a vaccine, giving you a small dose of misinformation to protect against a larger one.
Apparently, when it comes to fake news and disinformation, forewarned is forearmed. Being alert to the possibility of fake news can inoculate you against it.
Six groups of Amazon Mechanical Turk users (2,187 people) were enrolled in the study, which found that up to two-thirds of the effect of misinformation on global warming could be counteracted by the informational equivalent of a flu shot.
Misinformation essentially neutralized fact.
Not surprisingly, being told that “97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused global warming is happening” (a fact that you can see confirmation of in this paper and on NASA's website) raised the groups' estimate of the degree of scientific agreement.
Alternately, being shown a petition from an Oregon website attempting to dispute this fact by stating that “over 31,000 American scientists have signed a petition stating that there is no scientific evidence that the human release of carbon dioxide will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere” caused this estimate to drop.
When Turkers were exposed to both statements, misinformation essentially neutralized fact, leaving the people with their original impression that scientific agreement on people as a cause of global warming was slightly over 70%.
This demonstrates the power of misinformation. As study lead author, Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist from the University of Cambridge and Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab, says, “Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus.”
The regular vaccine consisted of a simple warning: “some politically-motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists,” followed by re-stating that there is, in fact, little disagreement among them.
When it comes to fake news and disinformation, forewarned is forearmed. Being alert to the possibility of fake news can inoculate you against it.
The extra strength vaccine added to the regular vaccine by picking apart specific points of the Oregon petition, noting, for example, that many of the signatures were highly suspect, including Charles Darwin's and those of the Spice Girls.
There are plenty of people named Charles Darwin. But the fact that the website has removed that name from its list of signees suggests that someone was getting a little too cute.
In the unvaccinated group, showing the petition after showing the 97% consensus statement caused an 18-percentage point drop in a user's estimate of scientists' agreement. The standard vaccine reduced that drop to 10.5 points. And the extra strength version lowered it to 6.4 points, cutting the petition's effect by two-thirds.
These results offer hope that it's possible for people to guard against and even counteract misinformation.
“We found that inoculation messages were equally effective in shifting the opinions of Republicans, Independents and Democrats in a direction consistent with the conclusions of climate science,” van der Linden said.
There's no word on a vaccine to protect against news about the Kardashians.
For those who question the findings, take a look at the article, which appears in Global Challenges and is freely available.