Building an Immunity to Fake News
In the run-up to last fall’s US presidential election, fake news swept social media sites like a virus, unleashing alternative facts that many people thought were real. One reason we may have been so susceptible to false facts? A consensus is powerful, experts say — especially when our brains are handling a lot of information quickly.
“What I think is happening, is that often, we’re heuristically processing information,” says Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge. “And by that, I mean that we’re often on autopilot.” He explains that online, the popularity of viral content signals that the information must be important — or true, even if it isn’t. “If everyone’s looking at it, if everyone’s reading it, then it must be worth sharing,” he says.
But according to Van der Linden’s research, we may not be doomed to believe all that we hear (or read). He’s the lead author on a new study, published in Global Challenges, that suggests we might be able to psychologically “vaccinate” ourselves against believing in fake news. The method is needle-free, but in many other ways, it’s similar to how we vaccinate against real viruses.
“If you give people a short exposure to a weakened version of the disinformation, it actually then protects them — protects their mind, essentially — from the effect of that disinformation,” explains co-author Anthony Leiserowitz, who directs the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
In the study, researchers focused on the “virus” of anti-climate change rhetoric: specifically, information suggesting that climate scientists don’t agree that human-caused global warming is happening. Research has shown that 97 percent of climate scientists agree humans are causing global warming. Despite this, Leiserowitz estimates “only about 15 percent” of Americans understand this scientific consensus exists.
That leaves many in the United States vulnerable to misinformation about climate change. And while just telling people about the scientific consensus works — increasing public perception of it by about 20 percentage points, according to the study — there are forces like disinformation campaigns working against consensus builders.
In the study, researchers hunted for the most efficient vectors of disinformation about the climate change consensus. They honed in one in particular: the Oregon petition. “It’s basically this petition that supposedly was signed by 31,000 scientists, all claiming that human-caused global warming isn’t happening,” Leiserowitz explains. But he says when you peer closer, the petition is not what it seems: Its long list of backers is short on factual ones.
“The signatories included noted Nobel laureates such as Ginger Spice of the Spice Girls, Mickey Mouse, I believe Adolf Hitler signed it, and of course the late great Charles Darwin,” he notes. “And then further analyses have found that almost none of the signatories actually have a background in atmospheric science.”
Then, the researchers tested several groups of people about their perceptions of the scientific consensus, under different conditions.
“What we find [is] if we just present people with the facts, then basically, people shift their opinions in a direction consistent with the conclusions of climate science,” Van der Linden says. Likewise, presenting people with disinformation (like the Oregon petition, without pointing out the fraudulent signatures) negatively affects their perception that a scientific consensus exists. Showing people both the false facts and the facts — while it seems like it would help — doesn’t either: “When you pair them together, the misinformation actually neutralizes, it cancels out the positive effect that basic facts have on people,” he notes.
So for the last two groups, researchers tested two ways of inoculating people against misinformation. In one group, they warned people that “some politically motivated groups use misleading tactics to try to convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists,” according to the study.
In the other group, researchers conducted a more detailed inoculation, by specifically debunking the Oregon petition — pointing out flaws like its fraudulent signatories, and lack of climate scientist supporters.
“And so we armed people with specific facts that they could then use to build resistance against future exposures,” Van der Linden says. When the “inoculated” groups were finally exposed to the full Oregon petition, researchers found that the misinformation’s effect was less potent than it was with other test subjects.
“Not to say that they were fully immune, but they were more resistant and less influenced by misinformation than before,” Van der Linden says. What’s more, he says the inoculations “worked fairly well across the board”— even for people with various political backgrounds, and differing prior beliefs about climate change.
Despite this success in a research setting, he recognizes that some people will never change their mind. But for those who haven’t yet made up their mind about the facts of climate change, Van der Linden sees hope in the inoculation research.
“Certainly, our research suggests that … especially among people who are doubtful, who are on the fence about the issue, have not made up their mind just yet, it can, in fact, be helpful — even if they’ve already been exposed to misinformation in the past.”
Tony Leiserowitz is a senior research scientist for the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies at Yale University. He’s based in New Haven, Connecticut.
Sander van der Linden is an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Cambridge. He’s based in Cambridge, United Kingdom.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Fake news. It’s a phrase that’s been thrown around a lot lately. Whether it’s a blatant lie or a manipulation of the truth, there’s no question that we are susceptible to these alternative facts. But why is that?
My next guest says it’s because of a trick the brain uses to process information. Can anything be done? Well, a new study out this week suggests there may be a way to inoculate yourself against this and immunity to fake news. Sander van der Linden is assistant professor of social psychology at Cambridge University. And Dr. van der Linden, welcome to Science Friday.
SANDER VAN DER LINDEN: Pleasure to be on the show, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you. Also joining us is Anthony Leiserowitz, senior researcher and director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications. Welcome back to Science Friday, Dr. Leiserowitz.
ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: Hi, Ira. Great to be with you again.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Let me begin with you, Sander first. What is the brain doing that makes us susceptible to believing what we now call fake news?
SANDER VAN DER LINDEN: Well, what I think is happening is that often we’re heuristically processing information. And by that I mean that we’re often in autopilot, and so when we look at information on the internet when we notice that a million people have shared a certain video or clip or news article, that sort of signals to us that it must be important. If everyone’s looking at it, if everyone’s reading it, then it must be worth sharing, and what people tend to do is just share and reshare that information, and that increases the transmission of fake news. And trying to sort of nudge people out of this state of auto-pilot and taking back control over the steering wheel. That’s what we tried to look at with this idea of inoculation.
IRA FLATOW: Does putting figures in the news the fact is give it any more content? Does that make a mess sound more reasonable?
SANDER VAN DER LINDEN: Well, figures can be sticky, and so perhaps that’s what the attraction is in terms of how people remember information. If you have an abstract paragraph about a topic, it might be hard for people to remember that, but figures tend to be sticky and so be easy to remember and also misremember.
IRA FLATOW: Dr. Leiserowitz, it’s so this study you did shows that there’s a way to vaccinate ourselves against this though, right?
ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: That’s right. That’s what we seem to see is that if you– basically, it’s very similar to the concept of inoculation or vaccines in the physical body. So we know that if you give the human immune system a short dose, a weakened dose of an infectious agent, let’s say the flu, your body learns how to protect itself against that virus when it encounters it back out in the wild. In a similar very analogous way, what we’re finding– and this is actually built on decades worth of prior research– that if you give people a short exposure to a weakened version of the disinformation, it actually then protects them, protects their mind, essentially, from the effect of that disinformation.
IRA FLATOW: And so give me an idea of what that would look like or sound like.
ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: Sure. Well in the course of this particular study, we were looking at a really important basic social fact, which is the fact of the scientific consensus that human caused global warming is happening. We’ve seen that only about 15% of Americans actually understand that there is in fact this scientific consensus. And moreover, lots of prior research has shown that when you simply tell people that 97% of climate scientists have reached this conclusion, most people will change their own estimate of that consensus quite dramatically, like 20 percentage points.
However, we also know that there’s been a longstanding and pretty effective disinformation campaign for years, trying to undercut and undermine that basic fact. And so what we did in this study is, first of all, try to identify what were some of the most effective disinformation memes, if I can use that word, out there. And one in particular is one that’s gone by in the name of the Oregon petition. It’s basically this petition that supposedly was signed by 31,000 scientists, all claiming that human caused global warming isn’t happening.
Well, to the uninformed, that actually sounds like what scientific consensus? 31,000 scientists signed this thing? That doesn’t sound like a consensus. Until you learn that the signatories included noted Nobel laureates such as Ginger Spice of the Spice Girls, Mickey Mouse. I believe Adolf Hitler signed it, and of course, the late great Charles Darwin. So and then further analyzes have found that almost none of the signatories actually have a background in atmospheric science. But it doesn’t matter, because the opponents have used that claim to basically try to discredit the findings of the scientific community and I’ll actually kick it over to Sander to help explain exactly how the experiment worked.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Sander, please.
SANDER VAN DER LINDEN: So basically, we had five different conditions, and we started with in one group, we just presented people with facts. So the fact that most scientists agree on human-caused climate change and that it’s happening. And then in another condition, we just showed people the Oregon petition, so the disinformation in this context. And in another condition, we paired the two together to see what happens when people are confronted with two different stories, one credible, the other not credible, if you will.
And so when we find if we just present people with the facts, then basically people shift their opinions in a direction consistent with the conclusions of climate science. When you just show people the false information, it has a negative effect on their perceptions of science and the scientific consensus. When you pair them together, the misinformation actually neutralizes, it cancels out the positive effect that basic facts have on people. And so it’s really there really tells us it’s hard to communicate the scientific consensus in a way to the general public because of the nature of misinformation and the damaging influence that it has on communicating basic facts.
And so, in the last two conditions we thought well, is it then possible to try to inoculate people against misinformation, to protect the positive effect that communicating the scientific consensus has on people? And then we had two conditions. Sort of a brief inoculation, where essentially we warned people that there is politically motivated actors who use misleading tactics to try to influence people, and then in the more detailed inoculation, we debunked the Oregon global warming petition specifically.
Just as Tony explained with the vaccine metaphor, we used a bit of the misinformation and predisposed people to that information and then we debunked it with specific facts just the idea that there’s fraudulent signatories on the petition the Spice Girls Charles Darwin et cetera. That only 1% of the actual signatories that have a background in science have anything to do with climate science. And so we armed people with specific facts that they could then use to build resistance against future exposures.
And in fact, what we find where we then actually expose people to the full dose or the actual global warming Oregon petition, people are more resistant to misinformation. Not to say that they were fully immune. But they were more resistant and less influenced by misinformation than before.
IRA FLATOW: Let me go to the phones, because we have an interesting phone call from a high school teacher in Cleveland, Ohio. Hi, Rene. Welcome to Science Friday.
RENE: Hi, Ira. Thank you so much for taking my call. First of all, I love your show, which I forgot to mention when you took my call a couple of months ago. And so I apologize for that.
As I said, I’m a high school science teacher, so I need a nap so, how can I take this study and help my students be better consumers of news, especially science news, because they’re constantly plugged into their phones. And like you said, they’ve seen that 400 million people share something and so they’re like oh, this is totally true. You know I think you make that connection just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean that it’s real.
IRA FLATOW: All right.
RENE: How can I use that in my class?
IRA FLATOW: All right. Now let me ask Sander, Anthony. Any suggestions for her?
ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: I’ll take a quick stab at that so first of all, what we did in this study is look specifically at could we inoculate against a specific false claim, and that’s about the scientific consensus. But this same phenomenon, of course, plays out if you will, upstream in the communication process when you think about sources. And so what I would strongly recommend to her is that you teach some of the basic skills of critical media literacy.
As in, if you help students really take a moment and think about where is this information coming from? Have I ever heard of this source before? Is it a credible source? Is it Scientific American? Is it know Science Friday, the preeminent source we should all look to trust, or is it something you absolutely never heard of before? That’s a really important cue that can help you disentangle truth from fiction.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, as you say, sources have always been very, very important. Of course, staying with your inoculation metaphor, if you’ve already been infected by an opinion, you could have a definite opinion one way or the other, the inoculation is not going to help you already is it? Or does it?
SANDER VAN DER LINDEN: Well, that’s an interesting question, because essentially that’s how the original metaphor was articulated. But in thinking about this, I think we’re extending that metaphor with the current research in the sense that depending on the medical context, if somebody is already infected with a particular virus, then administering a vaccine can certainly make things worse in some cases. This would be analogous to, let’s say, a backfire effect if we’re trying to inform people. But in other contexts, it can still offer incremental protection against future infections.
And in fact, in the experiment, what we find is that the inoculation actually worked fairly well across the board for different political groups, for people with differing prior beliefs in the issue. This is not to say that just as vaccines don’t offer full immunization to everyone and sometimes you need to go to the doctor multiple times in order to get the full vaccine. I would say that of course it doesn’t work for everyone. But generally, we found that certainly it doesn’t backfire with people who might or are predisposed to maybe have differing views on the issue.
Of course, there are certain people that are never going to change their mind, and the vaccine probably will not be helpful to them. But certainly, our research suggests that there is, especially among people who are doubtful, who are on the fence about the issue, who have not made up their mind just yet, that it can, in fact, be helpful, even if they’ve already been exposed to misinformation in the past.
IRA FLATOW: I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us today. Sander van der Linden, assistant professor of social psychology at Cambridge University. Anthony Leiserowitz, senior researcher and director of the Yale Program on Climate Communication. Gentlemen, thank you both for taking time to be with us today.
SANDER VAN DER LINDEN: My pleasure.
ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: Thanks, Ira
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.
Katie Feather is a former SciFri producer and the proud mother of two cats, Charleigh and Sadie.