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January 23, 2017

Team develops ‘Fake News Vaccine’– too little too late

Inoculation is generally thought of as a technique designed to protect the body from invading viruses, but some research has shown that same technique can also be translated to protect against misinformation.

In a new study published in the journal Global Challenges, researchers found inoculating people against “fake news” is an effective tool for guarding against the adoption of false ideas.

To reach their conclusion, study researchers contrasted reactions to a popular climate change fact with those to a well-known misinformation strategy. When offered back to back, the false material totally canceled out the factual press release in people's minds, and opinions were largely unchanged.

Next, the scientists included a bit of information on distortion tactics utilized by particular groups. This "inoculation" helped change opinions and hold them closer to the facts – in spite of the follow-up exposure to 'fake news'.

The study discovered the inoculation method moved the climate change opinions of Republicans, Independents, and Democrats equally.

"Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus," study author Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist from the University of Cambridge, said in a news release. "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 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,” van der Linden added.

Testing Anti-Fake News Measures

In a veiled experiment, researchers tested two opposing statements on over 2,000 participants: the factual "97% of scientists agree on manmade climate change" and the dubious Oregon Global Warming Petition Project, which claims to have a petition signed by "over 31,000 American scientists" saying there is no evidence climate change is manmade.

When volunteers were shown the true information followed by the Oregon petition, two appeared to cancel each other, with just a 0.5 percent showing a change in opinion.

Two groups in the study were also shown one of two ‘inoculations’ against fake news. One vaccine warned that "some politically-motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists,” while another specifically showed the fraudulent aspects of the Oregon petition, including some ‘signatures’ from the Spice Girls and Charles Darwin.

The general inoculation was related to an average opinion change of 6.5 percentage points towards the acknowledgment of climate science consensus, despite contact with fake news. When the detailed inoculation was added, it was nearly 13 percentage points, two-thirds of the impact seen when volunteers were just given the '97 percent' fact.

The scientists also evaluated the outcomes based on political affiliations and discovered the opinion-changing effects of factual information were preserved across all parties.

"We found that inoculation messages were equally effective in shifting the opinions of Republicans, Independents, and Democrats in a direction consistent with the conclusions of climate science," said van der Linden. "What's striking is that, on average, we found no backfire effect to inoculation messages among groups predisposed to reject climate science, they didn't seem to retreat into conspiracy theories.

"There will always be people completely resistant to change, but we tend to find there is room for most people to change their minds, even just a little."

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