What Is Prebunking?
It's better to inoculate against disinformation than to debunk later.
Posted August 27, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- As new disinformation crops up over and over, we can feel like we are perpetually debunking new falsehoods.
- A growing body of research demonstrates the effectiveness of prebunking, a form of inoculation against disinformation.
- New research shows that free online games that provide tools to fight disinformation can lead to a healthy skepticism when we read the news.
Debunking misinformation often feels like a game of Whac-A-Mole, the old arcade game where you get points for whacking plastic rodents as they randomly pop up. (Actually, it turns out that moles aren’t rodents, so that’s disinformation, too!) The problem is that new misinformation – and its darker cousin, the intentional disinformation (misinformation isn’t necessarily intentional) – keep popping up with nearly every news cycle.
One Harvard professor has become an expert in predicting what disinformation might arise next. As a recent news article explained, “Every day around 9 p.m., Joan Donovan bids her wife good night, heads into her home office — which she calls the 'dungeon' — and binges white supremacist videos and conspiracy theories on YouTube.” This routine fuels her research on the spread of disinformation, and her predictions have been eerily accurate. For example, Donovan was among the earliest to predict the rise of COVID-related xenophobic conspiracies and the spread of COVID-related medical falsehoods. And her nightly foray into the depths of internet hatred and lies has led her to predict more new disinformation related to COVID, as well as to climate change and racial inequality. The disinformation game of Whac-A-Mole can be endless.
Prebunking to Avoid Debunking Later
That’s why prebunking – “the process of debunking lies, tactics, or sources before they strike” – is so important. Prebunking is a decade-old idea that has just been bolstered by a rash of newly published research papers. For example, a team of researchers in the UK recently published the results of an examination of prebunking. They studied an online misinformation game called Bad News, a choose-your-own-adventure-style website with a cheeky sense of humor. The goal of the game is for players to become a “disinformation and fake news tycoon.” Players gain (ill-gotten) credibility and followers through shady online behaviors, including through social media. Gameplay might include, say, Tweeting under a fake presidential account for Joe Biden that he plans to “rename Canada to North Dakota #YouGotAnnexed.” If the player gains enough credibility and followers in the game, they can earn badges for “skills” like trolling, polarization, and impersonation. By having players emulate bad online behavior, Bad News seeks to make us better consumers of news, showing readers how to more readily spot trolling, polarization, impersonation, and other disinformation tricks.
The UK research team conducted several studies in which participants were randomly assigned to play either Bad News or the addictive shape-rotation game Tetris. They found that those who played Bad News later rated disinformation as significantly less reliable on a 1-7 scale than those who had played Tetris. This effect even lasted for several months with periodic “boosting.” The research team concluded that the game helped to debunk false information in advance, or prebunk it.
Inoculate Yourself Against Disinformation by Playing Games
The idea behind “prebunking” is called inoculation theory: A small amount of a virus can help our bodies build antibodies against future exposure to that virus. In a similar way, exposure to the workings of disinformation can help build resistance to future exposure to disinformation. We develop skills to make sense of the deluge of information that is our online life. And Bad News is one possible prebunking tool.
What can you do? Play the game at getbadnews.com. Challenge your friends to become disinformation tycoons and compare scores; the game lets you share it at the end. And if you teach a class in which media literacy might be useful (which is almost any class), assign the game as homework for your students to play. Prebunking teaches readers how to spot misinformation and disinformation, so they recognize when they see it.
You can also check out First Draft News, a nonprofit affiliated with Harvard’s Kennedy School that focuses on misinformation globally. First Draft recently published a primer by Laura Garcia and Tommy Shane on how to develop prebunking tools, and included a list of games, including Bad News, at the bottom of the article. They also recommend the game Go Viral (goviralgame.com), which focuses on COVID-related misinformation and disinformation. The effectiveness of Go Viral is supported by evidence from some of the same team that investigated Bad News in an article titled, in part, “Towards psychological herd immunity.” Hopefully, enough of the news-consuming herd can be inoculated before Professor Donovan’s predictions come true.
Basol, M., Roozenbeek, J., Berriche, M., Uenal, F., McClanahan, W. P., & Linden, S. V. D. (2021). Towards psychological herd immunity: Cross-cultural evidence for two prebunking interventions against COVID-19 misinformation. Big Data & Society, 8(1). https://doi.org/10.1177/20539517211013868
Lewandowsky, S., & van der Linden, S. (2021). Countering misinformation and fake news through inoculation and prebunking, European Review of Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1080/10463283.2021.1876983
Maertens, R., Roozenbeek, J., Basol, M., & van der Linden, S. (2021). Long-term effectiveness of inoculation against misinformation: Three longitudinal experiments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 27(1), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1037/xap0000315