If there’s one topic that has dominated 2016, it’s fake news.
Whether it’s the ocean of fake news stories that appeared during the US election or the ongoing problem of fake news surrounding climate change these stories are here to stay until both publishers and social media find a way of combatting them.
Scientists think they might have a solution however in the form of a psychological ‘vaccine’.
Scientists at the University of Cambridge have found that by ‘dosing’ people with a small amount of fake news alongside the real facts you actually ‘inoculate’ the brain against fake news.
In much the same way that medical vaccines dose the body with a tiny amount of the virus it needs to protect itself from, the same can be said for misinformation.
Lead author Dr Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist from the University of Cambridge explains: “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.
“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.”
To prove this point, researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Yale and George Mason carried out a disguised experiment where they subjected over 2,000 people in the US to a range of different news.
Splitting the 2,000 up into groups they first presented one group with a news story about climate change that contained nothing but facts.
They then followed this up with a fake news story and found that alarmingly, the fake news story pretty much cancelled out any positive associations that the readers initially had with the truthful story.
In another group however they let them see a story that contained truthful facts but, and this is the crucial difference, also mentioned some of the fake news stories surrounding the issue and warned against them.
Then when they were subjected to the purely fake news story the team noticed that it had almost no effect on the opinion of the reader.
What’s really promising is that this technique of pre-warning the reader actually had a stark effect on those people who are normally resistant to climate change theories.
“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.” explains van der Linden.
So what does this mean for news organisations? Well pretending fake news doesn’t exist seems to be the worst possible approach, instead this research suggests quite the opposite.
Acknowledge it exists, combine it with the truth and ultimately the human brain will end up siding with cold hard facts.