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Can we inoculate against misinformation?

A new study considers whether we can focus on protection rather than prevention - can we inoculate against misinformation?

By Carla Rosario, SciTech Digital Editor

In this post-truth era, misinformation is rife, and nowhere more-so than online; a wild west where Big Tech are struggling to find a balance between censorship and free-speech. A new study  considers whether we can focus on protection rather than prevention - can we inoculate against misinformation?

A team of Bristol and Cambridge university psychologists recently teamed up with Google’s  Jigsaw, a unit dedicated to understanding global challenges, to conduct an experiment on the efficacy of “prebunking”.  Prebunking is an idea based on inoculation theory, that giving audiences a micro-dose of  misinformation can prevent them from falling from it in the future.

The study, coined the Inoculation Science project, involved an experiment rolled out on Youtube:  the first “real world field study” of the theory on a social media platform. It involved short videos  played as ads, which drew from pop culture to illustrate concepts from “the misinformation  playbook”. Whilst the actual false-hoods being spread vary massively, the core tropes stem from  the same manipulative techniques, and so a more generalised approach is what is being put forward by the research teams. If successful, “prebunking” could offer a more scalable solution  than fact-specific debunking. “We need to teach people to recognise the misinformation  playbook, so they understand when they are being misled”, as said by Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, Chair in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Bristol.

So what are the misinformation tricks we should be looking out for? Inoculation Science lay out 5 key techniques they found by “analysing the rhetoric of demagogues”, and how they operate online.

1. Emotional Language

Using emotional words, particularly those that invoke negative emotions, increases the viral potential of social media content. This means sensationalist content can spread further,  reaching more minds, more often, and building an emotional tie to the information being spread.

2. Incoherence

Incoherence is when someone embeds 2 arguments in a longer debate, which cannot  possibly be true at once; they hide a paradox in wider discussion, to disguise the false-hood in  their messaging. They might do this if saying whatever sounds good at the time will benefit their  greater cause.

3. False Dichotomies

Presenting a limited number of choices, or presenting 2 sides as mutually exclusive is a fallacy known as false-dichotomy. Audiences are tricked into thinking they have a binary choice;  they can only be ‘either-or’ and no in-between. This is particularly successful at pitting groups against each-other, and reinforcing us vs them sentiment.

4. Scapegoating

In times of widespread dissatisfaction, demagogues often seize at the opportunity to pick  a scapegoat - redirecting general disaffection towards a particular group or person. When perpetuated this can also lead to a radicalised us vs them sentiment.

5. Ad-hominem Attacks

To distract from the matter at hand, someone can attack the person making an opposing  argument, rather than rebutting the argument itself. This is known as an ad-hominem attack, and is becoming an increasingly common distraction technique.

Inoculation Science used “source agnostic” videos to teach about the above techniques; intended for “anyone who does not appreciate being manipulated” regardless of demographic or beliefs, as put by Dr Jon Roozenbeek at the University of Cambridge.

After 6 initial controlled experiments, researchers found the videos improved people’s ability to  spot misinformation, and their confidence in recognising it in the future. They then tested it ‘in the wild’ with Google’s Jigsaw deploying the videos on 5.4million US YouTubers. They gave a random  30% of viewers a test question within 24 hours of their initial exposure, and found ability to recognise manipulation techniques had increased by 5%.

This shows promise that a widespread roll-out of inoculation videos might help to combat the viral spread of misinformation. Inoculation Science are continuing their research, and you can read their peer-reviewed publications or view their inoculation videos on their website to better protect yourself from the contagion of misinformation.

Featured image: Flickr / Peter Hogan