Technology & Science

Psychologists say they can inoculate people against fake news

Researchers have found that there may be a way to vaccinate people against climate change misinformation. The key? Telling them lies.

It's all about how you present the facts, researchers say: start by lying a little

Could there be a way to protect people against believing fake news? Some researchers say yes. (VOA/Wikipedia)

Researchers have found that there may be a way to vaccinate people against climate change misinformation. The key? Telling them lies.

A team of psychologists from the University of Cambridge, Yale University and George Mason University studied the effect of "fake news" about climate change and how it can shift people's opinions.

Medically speaking, people are vaccinated against a virus by introducing a dead or weakened version of it to the body. This gives it time to build up a resistance. It turns out that the same can work in psychology.

In a study published in the journal Global Challenges, researchers found that if a person is presented with facts on climate change followed by misinformation, the misinformation cancels out the facts. 

However, if the facts are presented with a small dose of misinformation, a person doesn't hold onto the misinformation as fact.

"Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus," lead author Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist from the University of Cambridge said in a statement.

"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."

2 types of inoculation

In order to determine how opinions shifted, the team presented more than 2,000 participants — of all ages and political views — with a website that asserted more than 31,000 U.S. scientists had signed a petition saying that there was no evidence that human-caused carbon dioxide release will cause climate change.

They also presented them with the accurate statement — based on a 2013 study — "97 per cent of scientists agree on manmade climate change."

There was a 20 per cent increase in scientific agreement when participants were only presented with the fact (in the form of a pie chart). Those who were shown only the website that contained misinformation, dropped their belief in a consensus by nine per cent.

There will always be people completely resistant to change.- Sander van der Linden, University of Cambridge

To see if it was possible to protect people against misinformation, the team used two types of inoculation: a general one that stated "some politically motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists."

The second was a detailed inoculation that called attention to the fact that many names were fraudulent on the website and that fewer than one per cent of the signatories had backgrounds in climate change.

With the general inoculation, the average opinion shifted by 6.5 percent towards accepting the fact. When the detailed inoculation was added on top of that, the shift was almost 13 per cent.

"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."