Now, Scientists Develop a 'Vaccine' to Tackle Fake News

The harmful influence of "fake news" in shaping the public's mindset on climate change has led scientists to develop a psychological "vaccine" to immunize people against the problem.

File: Facebook is one of the key websites used to spread fake news stories.
File: Facebook is one of the key websites used to spread fake news stories. | REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Researchers from the University of Cambridge (U.K.), Yale and George Mason (U.S.) devised psychological tools to inoculate readers against fake news. By employing the same method used in medicine -- humans are vaccinated against a virus by exposing them to a weakened version of the threat, thereby increasing tolerance -- the researchers discovered that "pre-emptively exposing" readers to a small "dose" of the misinformation can help cancel out larger false claims.

"Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus," said Dr. Sander van der Linden, the study's lead author. "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."

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The researchers discovered that in people who were consecutively presented with a well-known climate change fact and a popular misinformation campaign, the fake news cancelled out the accurate statement.

In order to devise a method to combat this issue, the researchers conducted a study in the form of a disguised experiment. They tested opposing statements -- one that rightly stated the 97 percent of scientists recognize the existence of climate change, and one that falsely proclaimed that over 31,000 American scientists agree that there is no evidence that human CO2 release will cause climate change, reports EurekAlert.

The researchers tested the response to these statements in 2,000 American citizens across a plethora of demographics. To see if their opinions can be altered, the participants were given two kinds of "vaccines": the first consisted of a general warning that "some politically-motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists", while the other was a detailed inoculation that picked apart the discrepancies in the false news.

The study, published today in the journal Global Challenges, discovered that both forms of vaccination reduced the participants' susceptibility to fake news. Following the inoculation, the participants retained the accurate information even after they were exposed to contradicting false claims.

"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," says Dr. Linden. "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."

Many groups have used "fake news", in tandem with social media, to malign opposing parties and influence the general public to agree with their rhetoric. The effects of fake news about Hillary Clinton on the results of the U.S. Presidential elections last year are perhaps the best example of its dangers. The new discovery will be vital in preventing the repeats of such incidences when it comes to other important issues, the most critical among which is climate change.

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