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Fake News 'Vaccine' Inoculates Against 'Alternative Facts'

New 'inoculation theory' could protect the masses from epidemics of fake news.

Mega Pixel/Shutterstock
Source: Mega Pixel/Shutterstock

We live in a social media era in which the epidemic of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ go viral far too often. Fortunately, an international team of social psychologists has pinpointed simple ways that the general public can be ‘vaccinated’ against the virus of calculated misinformation campaigns.

The new groundbreaking report, ”Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change,” was published today in the open-access journal Global Challenges.

For this study, researchers at Yale University, the University of Cambridge, and George Mason University investigated how the general public can most effectively be inoculated against strategic misinformation efforts designed to portray climate change as a hoax.

To unearth novel ways to create a ‘vaccine’ against fake news regarding climate change, the researchers exposed participants to polarizing climate-change statements using a cohort of 2,167 men and women from across the United States. The demographic of study participants covered a broad spectrum of age, education, and political parties.

The main goal of the study was to compare participants reactions to climate change reports based on scientific facts with those of widespread misinformation websites that rely on hyperbole and falsehoods.

The study reaffirmed the power of fake news: When presented back-to-back in immediate succession, the libelous material on 'fake news' websites completely negated the accurate scientific findings in people's minds. Their opinions ended up right back where they had started in terms of being confused about what to believe about climate change.

Prior to this study, the researchers scoured the internet to find the most effective climate change misinformation campaign currently influencing public opinion in the United States. Top honors for spreading provable falsehoods on climate change went to the Oregon Global Warming Petition Project. This website claims:

“31,487 American scientists have signed this petition, including 9,029 with PhDs stating there is no evidence that man-made carbon dioxide emissions will cause climate change.

These scientists are convinced that the human-caused global warming hypothesis is without scientific validity and that government action on the basis of this hypothesis would unnecessarily and counterproductively damage both human prosperity and the natural environment of the Earth.”

According to a statement by Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist from the University of Cambridge and Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab who led this research,

"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.

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."

The researchers found that the most effective way to inoculate someone to potential misinformation was to take a two-pronged 'vaccination' approach:

First, the general inoculation consisted of a warning: "Some politically-motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists."

Second, another detailed inoculation picked apart the Oregon petition based on specifics. For example, by highlighting that many of the supposed signatories are fraudulent, such as Charles Darwin and members of the Spice Girls. Also pointing out that less than 1 percent of signatories actually had backgrounds in climate science.

The first phase of general inoculation saw an average opinion shift of 6.5 percentage points towards acceptance of the climate science consensus, despite exposure to fake news. But when the second, more detailed inoculation was added to the first, the opinion shift jumped almost 13 percentage points, despite exposure to the falsehoods of Oregon petition fake news.

The researchers also analyzed their findings through the lens of someone's political party affiliation. Interestingly, prior to any type of inoculation, fake news on climate change negated the factual-based scientific findings equally for both Democrats and Independents.

However, for Republicans, the fake news on climate change overrode the science-based facts by 9 percentage points. The good news is that following inoculation, the positive effects of the accurate information were preserved across all political parties equally. Van der Linden concluded,

"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."

The researchers point out that, historically, tobacco and fossil fuel companies have used psychological inoculation to plant seeds of doubt about science-based findings and to undermine faith in a scientific consensus in the public consciousness.

They believe their latest study provides empirical evidence that suggests psychological inoculation techniques can be utilized to promote scientific discoveries and fact-based empirical evidence that promote public health and well-being by inoculating against misinformation campaigns.

The researchers conclude that pre-emptively warning people about political and profit-motivated agendas to spread misinformation on climate change may help to promote and protect public attitudes about the resounding scientific consensus through a type of psychological inoculation.

“Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods.” — Chuck Todd

This evening, as I was writing this Psychology Today blog post on how to inoculate the public against fake news, my Facebook page and Twitter feed were exploding with stories about 'alternative facts' and attacks on the 'dishonest media' that have erupted over the weekend, following Donald Trump's inauguration on Friday.

The latest 'inoculation theory' by van der Linden and colleagues provides a type of vaccination against fake news or various scenarios of propaganda and conflicting information on a highly politicized subject such as climate change ... or how many people attended Donald Trump’s inauguration. As the New York Times reported yesterday, “With False Claims, Trump Attacks Media on Turnout and Intelligence Rift.”

Without getting into the nitty-gritty of this highly politicized issue, I wanted to provide some potential ‘inoculation’ for you—right here and now—regarding this potential ‘fake news’ story by sharing the links to three full-length interviews and other 'legitimate news' stories so you can 'vaccinate' yourself from any potential misinformation by watching all of the materials with your own eyes in their entirety.

The first link is to President Trump's full speech at CIA headquarters yesterday where he said “I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”

Regarding the crowd size at his inauguration, Trump also said, "We had a massive field of people. You saw that. Packed. I get up this morning. I turn on one of the networks and they show an empty field. I say: “wait a minute. I made a speech. I looked out. The field was…. It looked like a million, a million and a half people.”

The second is a video of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer holding his first press conference yesterday in which he delivered a statement blasting the media for allegedly underestimating and 'false reporting' on the size of the crowds at President Trump's inaugural ceremony.

Lastly, is the full interview between Kellyanne Conway and Chuck Todd from Meet the Press this morning that degenerated into a heated exchange about Spicer trying to litigate provable falsehoods in his first press conference.

Conway said that Spicer was just presenting “alternative facts.” Chuck Todd responded by saying, “Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods.” This afternoon, the Washington Post summed up this exchange in an article, “How Kellyanne Conway Ushered in the era of alternative facts.”

Once you go down the rabbit hole of believing alternative facts or fake news, it’s easy to feel like a character in Alice in Wonderland peering through the looking-glass into a surreal world where the line between truth and fiction is constantly blurred. Lewis Carroll sums up the conundrum of Alice living in a fact-averse parallel universe writing,

“Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things." "I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

"If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn't be. And what it wouldn't be, it would. You see?”

Carroll concludes, "Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality." That being said, hopefully, by having this new empirical evidence from van der Linden et al. on how to inoculate oneself against fake news, each of us can avoid catching the misinformation bug and survive the "war on reality" in the months and years ahead.


Sander van der Linden, Anthony Leiserowitz, Seth Rosenthal, and Edward Maibac, Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change. Global Challenges. DOI: 10.1002/gch2.201600008