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article imagePsychological reinforcement helps combat ‘fake news’

By Tim Sandle     Jan 26, 2017 in Internet
The circulation of fake news, especially on social media and in light of the U.S. presidency election, is concerning to those interested in discussing fact and evidence based news. A new study shows how fake news can partly be combated.
The U.S. general election for the new president was nadir in terms of fact-based reporting. Many statements were made without any supporting evidence; and while professional journalists continued to cross-check and appropriately source material (as is the policy on Digital Journal), a great deal of misinformation was circulated on social media.
A new study has taken one key science and policy based subject – climate change – and examined it within the current proliferation of poorly sourced news. The study shows, unsurprisingly, that misinformation about climate change can psychologically cancel out the influence of accurate statements. However, the research goes on to show that if legitimate facts about the subject are delivered with so-called "inoculation", in the form of a warning about misinformation, then some positive influence is preserved.
The social psychologists behind the study use a medical analogy to explain the basis of their research. In medicine, vaccination is an established treatment. Here vaccinating against a virus involves exposing a person to a weakened (attenuated) version of the virus; and this helps to build up a tolerance. The researchers state that a similar approach can be taken for information management.
For the study, the researchers took the subject of climate change. This is a topic where considerable scientific evidence exists about the impact of human activity on the Earth’s climate and yet there are considerable counters, often at the level of sloganeering, which are not backed up factual information. Using social media the researchers found that a popular anti-climate change misinformation campaign, when presented repeatedly, cancels out accurate statement in people's minds.
Social media
Social media
Flickr user magicatwork (CC BY 2.0)
To explore this, the researchers took to an off-line social media platform, using 2,000 volunteer participants, and posted small amounts of misinformation copying the distortion tactics used by certain interest groups. When they repeated the campaign emphasizing that the information was ‘opinion’, the inoculation approach kept the social media reaction more sceptical and closer to the evidence based findings.
In one part of the study, when participants were shown a factious assertion that there is no consensus among scientists, apparently supported by the Oregon Global Warming Petition Project, support for the prevailing scientific consensus that climate change is happening fell by nine percentage points.
In contrast, when participants were shown a pie-chart that revealed 97 percent of scientists agree on human-made climate change, support for the scientific consensus rose by 20 percentage points.
When participants were shown the accurate pie chart followed by the false Oregon statement, the outcome was neutral and no shift in opinion occurred. The researchers were surprised to find the two statements neutralised each other out. This inferred that participants were aware of a debate, but were not completely sure which side to believe.
However, when the information was presented with a warning: “some politically-motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists”, then the balance of opinion moved back towards the scientific statements and away from the misinformation.
When the fake Oregon Global Warming Petition Project was taken apart so that the participants could see that the names of the supposed scientists behind the report were Charles Darwin and members of the Spice Girls, support fell away by around seven percent. Although the drop in support was not as great as might be imagined, it showed that a challenge to fake news can exert some effect.
In a research brief, the lead scientist, Dr Sander van der Linden, who works at the University of Cambridge, said: “misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus”.
He added about the study: "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.” The aim was to help build up a psychological resistance to misinformation.
The tactics of misinformation have been used in the past, the researchers note and this gives the academic study credence. For instance, fossil fuel companies have used misinformation to ‘challenge’ arguments about pollution and tobacco companies have attempted to signal that smoking does not correlate with cancer.
The research is published in the journal Global Challenges, under the title “Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change.”
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