Psychologists develop fake news ‘vaccine’ to stop spread of misinformation

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Dawna Friesen’s take on U.S. President Donald Trump’s tumultuous relationship with the press and the new era of “alternative facts.” – Jan 23, 2017

Tired of falling for fake news on the Internet? Scientists say that with the onslaught of fake news, they’ve come up with a “vaccine” that’ll “inoculate” against the spread of misinformation on websites and social media.

To halt fake news in its tracks, a team of psychologists says every accurate statement needs to come with a “warning dose” of misinformation.

It’d work the same way that medical vaccines do: when doctors vaccinate against a virus, they expose the body to a weakened version of the bug – just enough for the body to build up resistance to it.

READ MORE: Do we really know what ‘fake news’ is?

“Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus. 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,” Dr. Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist from the U.K.’s University of Cambridge, said in a school statement.

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“The idea is to provide a cognitive repertoire that helps build up resistance to misinformation, so the next time people come across it they are less susceptible,” he explained.

READ MORE: How Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook to combat fake news

Here’s how it worked in van der Linden’s study: the researchers recruited 2,000 people across the U.S. from all age groups, education levels, and political leanings.

They looked at a website that suggests that 31,000 American scientists signed a petition stating that there is no evidence that humans and their carbon dioxide release are driving climate change.

They also threw out a fact: “97 per cent of scientists agree on man-made climate change.” (In previous studies, van der Linden found that this fact was an “effective gateway” for public acceptance of climate change.)

Turns out, there was a “large increase in perceived scientific agreement” when the study participants were shown the fact about climate change consensus. In that case, agreeing that man-made climate change was real shot up by 20 per cent.

When shown only misinformation – the petition – belief by the study participants dropped by about nine per cent.

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When some participants were shown both the accurate statement and the website with misinformation, the researchers learned the two cancelled each other out. Study participants weren’t swayed from their initial beliefs.

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“It’s uncomfortable to think that misinformation is so potent in our society. A lot of people’s attitudes toward climate change aren’t very firm. They are aware there is debate going on but aren’t necessarily sure what to believe. Conflicting messages can leave them feeling back at square one,” van der Linden explained.

READ MORE: Why some are blaming Facebook for Donald Trump’s presidential win

Read the full study published in the journal Global Challenges.

In November, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the social network is taking new steps to combat fake news on the platform. He promised Facebook would develop stronger detection tools to point out fake and misleading news articles.

Zuckerberg proposed roping in notable fact-checking organizations to help identify misleading content.

“Fake news means different things to different people,” George Washington University professor Nikki Usher told the Washington Post. “Is it satire? Comedy news? Partisan conspiracy? Partisan journalism? Big mistakes reliable news institutions have made, or hoaxes they fell for?”

Tim Currie, director of the school of journalism at Kings College in Halifax, told Global News’ Rebecca Joseph that he would classify fake news as something with the intent to deceive.

“It’s an article with few verifiable facts, created to deceive the public, often with the intention of making money or influencing public opinion,” he told Global News.

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— With files from Global News’ Nicole Bogart

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