Disinformation is the dissemination of false information through the media in order to influence public opinion. It was at its peak during the COVID-19 pandemic, today it looms over the war in Ukraine and continues to be fueled by climate skeptics. The fact is that “fake news” circulates on almost all topics today on a daily basis, mainly on the Web and social networks. If this seems inevitable, Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge, has found a way to stop this phenomenon.
A 2019 Ipsos survey showed that 86% of the citizens of the online world believe they have experienced fake news. Among them, nearly nine out of ten said they believed the news at least once for the first time. The authors of the survey talk about “a real global epidemic.” This fake news is mainly spread through social media, primarily Facebook, through websites and YouTube, then on television.
Sander van der Linden studies how and why people share such information and how it can be stopped. The author of Foolproof: Why Misinformation Infects Our Minds and How to Boost Your Immunity spoke with Daisy Juhas, editor of Scientific American’s “Mind Matters” column, to discuss how to stop the spread of fake news. His thinking is based on an analogy: disinformation is like a virus to him because it spreads in stages. So, just like with the virus, the vaccine will end the “epidemic.”
It’s better to resist by warning about the methods used
“The virus attacks by exploiting the weak points of our cells and capturing part of their mechanisms. The same is in many ways with the mind, ”the specialist notes. Indeed, disinformation uses certain cognitive biases that influence decision making. We’ve seen it time and time again: fake news can create doubt in people’s minds, lead to and exacerbate rifts between groups, encourage malicious behavior, etc.
For example, a psychologist induces the “illusory truth effect” (also known as the “certainty effect”), which refers to the tendency to believe that information is true after repeated exposure – even though we know it is false.
To guard against these effects, van der Linden suggests using a technique he calls “preclosing” that makes people more “resistant” to misinformation. The technique has two phases. The first is a warning: it’s just a message to people that disinformation is everywhere and someone might want to manipulate them. This warning in some way activates their “psychological immune system” and thus increases their vigilance and skepticism towards the information they read or hear.
The second phase, which the specialist compares to a dose of a vaccine, is that people are presented with a “small dose” of false information, while at the same time giving them advice on how to refute it – “psychic antibodies”.
As part of their research, the psychologist and two collaborators tested this pre-disguise technique in 2020 with an online game called Bad News, specifically designed to provide psychological resistance to common online disinformation strategies across cultures. The results show that participants improved their ability to identify the range of false information by 20-25%. “Social media companies, governments, and educational institutions could develop similar large-scale vaccination programs against misinformation,” the researchers concluded.
False dilemma, emotional manipulation and scapegoating are among the most commonly used strategies.
Van der Linden explains that he also created a series of videos in collaboration with Google to raise awareness of YouTube’s manipulation techniques. One of the most common is the “false dichotomy” (or false dilemma), an approach that involves presenting two solutions to a given problem as the only possible ones when there are others. This technique is present in videos of radicalization, but is also widely used by political figures, the expert notes.
Last year, van der Linden and colleagues published a study in the journal Science Advances testing the effectiveness of five specially crafted short videos for teaching people common manipulation techniques: emotional manipulation, inconsistency, false dichotomy, scapegoating, and ad hominem attacks. (which consists in contradicting a person’s words or ideas). Through these videos, people were able to better recognize the fake news they encountered afterwards, both in the lab and on social media, including through a YouTube live test with more than 22,000 participants.
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“In our False Dichotomy video, you see a scene from the Star Wars movie Revenge of the Sith where Anakin Skywalker says to Obi-Wan Kenobi, ‘If you’re not with me, then you’re against me.’ – Wan replies, “Only the Sith are so absolute.” The video pauses to explain that Anakin just used a false dichotomy,” explains the psychologist.
Raising awareness is also important because many of us think we are completely “immune” to misinformation when we are not. A 2017 study for Channel 4 as part of Fake News Week found that only 4% of respondents were actually able to spot fake news, compared to 49% who previously said they were quite or very confident in their ability to make a difference. “In most environments, people are not actively deceived, so our default state is to accept things as true. […] But if you find yourself in an environment – for example, in social networks – where the level of misinformation is much higher, things can go wrong, ”the expert notes.
In this constant stream of fake news, it’s not always easy to tell the truth from the lies. Prepositioning can be a good “first line of defense”; but fact-checking, consisting of checking the facts presented and the statements made, remains unavoidable. It has also been systematically practiced for several years by several media outlets, which now devote sections to these checks.