How to withstand and counteract today’s flood of fake news
From lies to election fraud to fake anti-vaccine claims, a deluge of misinformation has flowed through our society. And it’s dangerous.
Despite a pandemic, many people have refused to wear masks. It contradicts the best public health advice available. Still, many people have heard some voices saying that masks are not necessary. These people may be misinformed or have a hidden agenda. But the result is the same. People have contracted COVID-19 who might have avoided it with masks.
And then there are people who question the value of vaccines. In January, some of them destroyed a mass vaccination site in Los Angeles, California. Their actions prevented lifesaving shots for hundreds of people.
“COVID has opened everyone’s eyes to the dangers of health misinformation,” says Briony Swire-Thompson. She works at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. As a cognitive scientist, she studies how the mind performs tasks such as thinking or remembering.
Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
The pandemic has made it clear that in some cases, bad information can be fatal. And scientists are struggling to stop a deluge of misinformation that threatens to flood our news feeds. This tide has spread on social media without any factual verification.
Consider a December poll of 1,115 US adults by NPR and research firm Ipsos. Almost half (47 percent) of respondents believe the majority of protests against Black Lives Matter in the summer of 2020 were violent. In fact, the claim was not true. But only a few more than one in three (38 percent) knew that.
Scientists have studied why and how people fall for bad information – and what we can do about it. What they learned shows that sometimes even small changes in behavior can save us from falling for false claims. By employing a number of new tactics to stay current, we can build a levee to keep out the deluge of misinformation.
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People on social media and elsewhere sometimes share questionable claims because they find them surprising or interesting. How a claim is presented – whether through text, audio, or video – can also affect how many people believe and share it.
Videos seem to be the most believable, notes S. Shyam Sundar. He works at Penn State University in University Park. There he focuses on the psychology of messaging. He was part of a team that started a study in response to a series of murders in India in 2018. Back then, people there had posted a disturbing video on WhatsApp. It appeared to falsely show a child abduction.
To test the effectiveness of various media, Sundar’s team showed audio, text and video versions of three fake news stories to 180 people in India. Each story appeared as a WhatsApp message. Viewers with less knowledge of the subject of the story rated the video stories as the most believable. They were also most likely to think these stories were worth sharing.
“To see is to believe,” concludes Sundar. It is also the title of his team’s article detailing the results. It will appear on August 1st in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.
Their results suggest several ways to combat fake news. For example, social media companies might prioritize investigation of posts claiming fake news if those posts contain video. New programs could also be developed to educate people about how deceptive some videos can be. “People should know that they are more gullible about misinformation when they see something on video,” explains Sundar. This is especially important with the advent of so-called deepfake technologies. These can contain bogus but visually compelling videos.
It’s hard to forget. . . or process completely?
One of the biggest problems with fake messages is how easily they get into our brains and how difficult they are to remove once they get there.
We are inundated with new demands and ideas. To deal with this, our minds use mental abbreviations. These help us decide what to remember and what to let go, explains Sara Yeo. She works at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where she studies science communication. We often find the most credible claims that go hand in hand with our values. In other words, she says, people are unlikely to question things that go with what they already believe.
To make matters worse, people can get the facts right in a message but still miss the point they are trying to convey. Why? Our emotions and values can influence how we interpret data, notes Valerie Reyna. She is a psychologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. She wrote about it in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year.
The good news: Researchers are developing tools to combat misinformation.
One approach is to “prebunk” facts in advance instead of exposing them afterwards.
Sander van der Linden is a social psychologist. He works at the University of Cambridge in England. He was part of a team that investigated what happens when people read true information about climate change in 2017 and later came across a petition denying the reality of climate science. They found that this petition removed any benefit from hearing the real information first. The mere mention of the false claims seemed to undermine what people believed to be true.
That got van der Linden puzzled: Would it work the same way to offer people other types of truthful data before making false claims?
Using the example of climate change, they tested this by telling people in advance that “Charles Darwin” and “Members of the Spice Girls” were among the bogus signatories of the petition. They found that this prior knowledge actually helped people resist the petition’s false claims. It also helped them remember an important message – that there was consensus among scientists on climate change.
Here’s a metaphor for 2021: think of fake news as a virus. Prebunking would be like giving people a vaccine. It would enable them to build antibodies against bad information.
Van der Linden and his colleagues then developed a game to teach people how to better spot and fight fake claims. They call it bad news. It turned out to be so promising that the team came up with a version of COVID-19: GO VIRAL! Initial results suggest that gambling is helping people better spot fake pandemic-related claims.
Stop and take a deep breath
Sometimes all it takes to slow the spread of misinformation is getting people to pause and think about what they’re doing, says Gordon Pennycook. He is a social psychologist at the University of Regina in Canada.
In a 2019 study, he worked with David Rand at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. The two made real headlines for 3,500 attendees. They also showed them fake headlines on political issues. For example: “The federal court in Pennsylvania gives legal authority to REMOVE TRUMP after Russian interference.” The researchers also tested the analytical mindsets of the people participating in this study.
Those who scored better on the analytical tests were less likely to have fake news headlines mistaken for correct. And it didn’t matter which political party they belonged to. In other words, lazy thinking, not political bias, could lead someone to accept fake news. Pennycook and Rand published their results in Cognition.
But when it comes to COVID-19, political leanings seem to influence our behavior. These researchers talk about this in a paper that was first posted online on PsyArXiv.org on April 14, 2020. People with strong political views, especially in the United States, tend to get their news from very diverse media, they showed. And this can overwhelm a person’s thinking ability when it comes to taking protective measures, such as deciding whether to wear masks during the pandemic.
Inattentiveness can also contribute to the spread of fake news, says Pennycook. Fortunately, he adds, there is a simple solution: “We have to stop turning our brains off like that.”
For exposure, timing can be anything. Marking headlines as “true” or “false” after the presentation helped people remember a week later whether the information they were hearing was correct. It worked much better than marking them like that before or at the moment the information was shared. That comes from a February report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Nadia Brashier is a cognitive psychologist at Harvard University. She worked with Pennycook and Rand on this study. So did the political scientist Adam Berinsky from MIT. Prebunking still has value, they say. But a quick and easy fact check after someone has read a headline can also be helpful. This is especially true on social media, where people can scroll through the posts almost thoughtlessly.
In the end, it is clear that much remains to be done to vaccinate the public against misinformation. Van der Linden says: “We are trying to answer the question: What percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to have herd immunity against misinformation?”