Is a Fake News Vaccine really possible?

The BBC reports on a recently published study as follows …

A University of Cambridge study devised psychological tools to target fact distortion.

Researchers suggest “pre-emptively exposing” readers to a small “dose” of the misinformation can help organisations cancel out bogus claims.

Stories on the US election and Syria are among those to have caused concern.

“Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus,” said the University of Cambridge study’s lead author Dr Sander van der Linden.

“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.”

I have a few problems with the BBC article, and also with some similar articles within other media outlets such as the Independent. After reading the story I simply do not grasp what is actually going on. To be specific, how can feeding people a small dose of fake news actually immunise them against being receptive to fake news?

The other problem is that there are no links to the actual study or the source for the story itself, so there is no easy way for anybody to fact check anything here.

Is this story about being immunised against fake news a fake news story?

It would of course be highly ironic if it was, but no, it is quite real, so let’s dig into some the actual details.

The Study – Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change

The study is available in a new Open Access journal published by Wiley. Since this study appears in Volume 1 Issue 1, I do need to ask myself about the credibility of both the author of the paper and also the journal itself.

Given the importance of the topic, you might expect that the University of Cambridge itself would have a press release about this study. So, if I surf on over to their website, then sure enough they do indeed …

Let’s complete things, here is a link to the full study itself. There is no paywall, the new Journal is open access.

What did they actually do, how does this psychological “vaccine” work?

They focused specifically on the topic of Climate Change. In that context they had two distinct items of news, one was fake and one was real.

  • Consensus fact (CT): a pie chart that points out: “97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening.”
  • Counter Message (CM), the Fake fact: “there is no consensus on human-caused climate change.” This was based on a real disinformation campaign (“The Oregon Global Warming Petition Project,” 2007) which hosts a website claiming that; “over 31 000 American scientists have signed a petition stating that there is no scientific evidence that the human release of carbon dioxide will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Then they proceeded to test these opposing statements on over 2,000 participants across the US spectrum of age, education, gender and politics using the online platform Amazon Mechanical Turk.

Each participant was asked to estimate the current levels of scientific agreement on climate change throughout the study.

Here is how things panned out …

  • Those shown only the real fact [CT] about climate change consensus (in pie chart form) reported a large increase in perceived scientific agreement – an average increase of 20 percentage points.
  • Those shown only misinformation [CM] (a screenshot of the Oregon petition website) dropped their belief in a scientific consensus by 9 percentage points.
  • Those shown both the accurate pie chart followed by the erroneous Oregon petition had an interesting response. The researchers were surprised to find the two neutralised each other (a tiny difference of 0.5 percentage points).

… and now the not so magic vaccine. Two groups in the study were randomly given ‘vaccines’:

  • general inoculation (In1), consisting of a warning that “some politically-motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists”.
  • detailed inoculation (In2) that picks apart the Oregon petition specifically. For example, by highlighting some of the signatories are fraudulent, such as Charles Darwin and members of the Spice Girls, and less than 1% of signatories have backgrounds in climate science.

… and the effect of that?

Well as you might anticipate, the misinformation that followed did not cancel out the accurate message.

  • The general inoculation saw an average opinion shift of 6.5 percentage points towards acceptance of the climate science consensus, despite exposure to fake news.
  • When the detailed inoculation was added to the general, it was almost 13 percentage points – two-thirds of the effect seen when participants were just given the consensus fact.

Here is a chart from the paper that sums that all up …

A few nice quotes from the author, Sander van der Linden

“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 a debate going on, but aren’t necessarily sure what to believe. Conflicting messages can leave them feeling back at square one.”

“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,” 

“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.”  

Odd quirk in the study?

This small snippet is rather weird. Clearly political leanings do appear to play a role …

on average, only Republicans reduced their consensus estimates when they viewed the consensus message followed by the counterinformation.

So what is this Study telling us?

Basically this …

pre-emptively warning people about politically motivated attempts to spread misinformation helps promote and protect (“inoculate”) public attitudes about the scientific consensus

… in other words, advise people about who is issuing fake news, why they are doing that, and what types of fake news is floating about. Also present an appropriate rebuttal, and people will wise up.

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