January 26, 2017

Inoculate Against False Information

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:

Fake Story

According to many recent reports, we now seem to be living in a “post-truth world.” With President Trump’s early statements, including some demonstrably false claims on his inauguration crowd-size as well as his relationship with the U.S. intelligence community, the phrase that seems to fit is the one that presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway settled on: “alternative facts.” That euphemism for claims that don’t survive media fact-checking, but are nonetheless believed and used as part of the public dialogue, captures what should be a depressing (real) fact about our age: Fake news is proliferating and the public seems to be increasingly unable to sort out what’s real and what isn’t, or perhaps unmotivated to do so. Some might be shrugging their shoulders and giving up, essentially just deciding that each person should find their own individual “truth” that fits their worldview. 

You could say that surrender is strongly at odds with all facets of an informed democratic society. But where it is especially troublesome is in the courtroom. A trial context is designed to serve the idea of truth, and facts — with no alternatives — is what we are after. The casual view that each side is entitled to their own version of reality shouldn’t survive in a courtroom. But in that temple of truth, separating facts from non-facts can still pose a practical difficulty. If your adversary, for example, keeps repeating a falsehood, how do you keep that from infecting your jury? The answer comes down to some old advice with some new backing: You inoculate. The research shows that it works, even on the fake news of “alternative facts.” As explained in a ScienceDaily release, researchers from Cambridge, Yale and George Mason (van der Linden et al., 2016) found that while misinformation about climate change cancelled out the influence of accurate statements on climate change, adding an inoculation message along with the accurate information allowed participants to retain at least some of the influence of the correct information.  Using 2000 research participants across the U.S., the team presented both accurate information about the proportion of climate scientists who believe in anthropogenic climate change, as well as misinformation about a supposed alternate survey suggesting that there is no consensus. With just those pieces of information, one after the other, the “fake negated the factual,” or the two tended to cancel each other out, leaving the participant back where they started. However, presenting the two messages together as an inoculation, “a warning dose of misinformation” worked better. When the researchers warned that there is an alternate claim being shared, but one that is based on an open survey, not limited to climate scientists, and in fact signed by some questionable names (including “Charles Darwin” and all five members of the Spice Girls), then views on that subject shifted in the more accurate direction for Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. The advice to inoculate is good advice for trial. In this post, I’ll share some thoughts on why and how to inoculate.

Why Does Inoculation Work?

In the context of a medical vaccine, inoculation works by exposing the body to a weakened or neutered version of the threat, allowing the body to safely build up defenses. As it applies to persuasion, the notion of inoculation is an analogy, but the process is parallel. As the study’s lead author comments, the threat behaves the same. “Misinformation can be sticky,”Dr. Sander van der Linden explains, “spreading and replicating like a virus. ” Exposing subjects to some of the misinformation they will hear along with some context that helps them to doubt it, allows them to build up defenses that can be used when they hear a similar argument or a stronger version of the argument later. “The idea,” he continues, “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.”

A backlash is always possible. For individuals who are already deeply committed to a view, hearing new information that contradicts that view just causes them to doubt the new information and to commit even more strongly to their prior view. In van der Linden’s study, however, they did not see that backlash, at least not on average. “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 other reason that inoculation works for advocates is that it conveys an attitude toward the other side’s information. Identifying and refuting a point, ideally before the other side has had a chance to fully develop it, telegraphs that “We are not surprised by this or scared of this.”

How to Inoculate

It Needs to Be Their Argument

You need to share with your audience what the other side is going to say. That means not just sharing the information to refute what they’ll be saying, but sharing at least a version of what they will be saying.

It Needs to Be Accurate

Don’t Strawman the other side, or you risk losing credibility when jurors realize the real shape and strength of their argument. Instead, make sure that your representation is not just accurate, but also likely to be seen as fair.

But It Need Not Be Complete

You need to be accurate, but that doesn’t mean you need to do their work for them. You don’t need to represent all of what they’re going to say, and if you actually tried to do that, you would spend most of your time in a defensive posture, which isn’t strong.

And It Does Need to Be Refuted

If the version of the flu virus in your vaccine is active and stronger than the antibodies, then you’ve just given someone the flu. Don’t pick their strongest argument, necessarily, but pick one that provides a representative sample, and one that is easily, quickly, and clearly refuted. For example, in picking an example that questions climate science, the researchers didn’t get into the detailed science. Instead they focused on the polling of scientists as something that is easily understandable, and knocked down with a few salient examples.


Other Posts on Refutation: 


van der Linden, S. L., Leiserowitz, A. A., Rosenthal, S. A., Feinberg, G. D., & Maibach, E. W. (2016). Inoculating the public against misinformation about climate change. Global Challenges, 2017; 1600008 DOI: 10.1002/gch2.201600008 

Image credit: 123rf.com, used under license, edited


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