Researchers Find Psychological "Vaccine" Against Fake News


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

"Alternative facts" are the new "lies." lightspring/Shutterstock

Although plenty of news stories have various angles to them, some things in life are always factual and some things never are. If you try really hard, you can probably convince yourself that the sky is purple and cats can speak fluent French, but both are demonstrably untrue.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of people out there that read fake news, or hear about new-fangled “alternative facts” – Trumpian code for bullshit – and genuinely see these treacherous tales as being on an equal footing with empirical reality. This is a very 21st-century problem without a clear solution, but a new study suggests there may be a psychological vaccine against this resurgent virus of misinformation.


Just over 2,000 participants form a range of ages, genders, demographics, and political affiliations were recruited online by the Universities of Cambridge, Yale, and George Mason. They were shown a series of statements and articles regarding climate change, and were asked throughout to register on a sliding scale what their opinion of it was, particularly with respect to the scientific consensus on the topic.


First off, participants were shown a pie chart accurately illustrating the fact that 97 percent of scientists agree that modern climate change is a man-made phenomenon. Then, in some instances, they were linked to a completely ludicrous “news” story from a politically motivated organization that claims tens of thousands of scientists say that there is no such consensus.

Those only shown the 97 percent information reported an average of a 20-point swing towards accepting that there is indeed a scientific consensus. Subjects only given the fake news story reported a shift in the opposite direction of 9 points. People shown both found that the net swing was essentially zero, meaning that the fake news had the power to “cancel out” the actual fact.

However, some participants were given a “general inoculation” before seeing the fake news, one which was essentially a warning to readers that some websites with political agendas use “misleading tactics” to convince people of untruths. This mechanism ultimately meant that there was an average swing towards consensus acceptance by 6.5 points.


Others were given a “detailed inoculation” that carefully picked apart the specific fake news article bit by bit. These participants reported an almost 13 percent swing towards the consensus afterwards.

Fossil fuel industries often use bold headlines and shocking claims to cast doubt upon the scientific authority of the academic world. This often proves to be effective, and so these researchers decided to see if this could work in reverse – and it does.

The fact that there is a significant swing towards the scientific consensus with just the generic warning beforehand is a positive sign. After all, this is similar to a fact-checking alert mechanism currently being trialed by Facebook.

Essentially, this study, published in the journal Global Challenges, implies that it’s worth warning people that they are about to read something that is objectively untrue.


However, it’s still incredibly distressing that even after being given a point-by-point takedown of a fabricated news story that the swing towards fact isn’t as strong as it was for the group who didn’t read the fake news in the first place. This is a clear indication that some people will believe whatever they want no matter how clearly and calmly it is refuted.


The team, however, think that it’s always worth trying.

“There will always be people completely resistant to change,” lead author Dr Sander van der Linden, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Cambridge, said in a statement. “But we tend to find there is room for most people to change their minds, even just a little.”


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