In this photo illustration the Social networking site Facebook is displayed on a laptop screen on March 25, 2009 in London, England
In this photo illustration the Social networking site Facebook is displayed on a laptop screen on March 25, 2009 in London, England

Scientists develop 'fake news' vaccine, helping inoculate people against lies

Fake news has been credited with helping both Donald Trump and the Leave campaign

Andrew Griffin
Monday 23 January 2017 11:30

Scientists have created what they say is a vaccine against the kind of fake and hyper-partisan news that is spreading quickly across Facebook.

The researchers claim that by showing people lies, they can teach them to better see the truth. The solution works in a similar way to a real vaccine – exposing people to a small amount of the problem to help them better respond to larger amounts of it.

The solution could help social networks and news organisations battle against fake news, which has been credited with helping the vote for both Brexit and for Donald Trump.

The study claims that if people are shown well-established facts about climate change and then lies about it, the latter will cancel out the former.

But if the correct information is combined with a small "dose" of misinformation then it will have less resonance, according to the study.

Giving people a small piece of the data helps "inoculate" them against the kinds of tactics that people use to spread fake information and use it to political ends.

Lead author Dr Sander van der Linden, from the University of Cambridge, said: "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."

A disguised experiment presented more than 2,000 US residents from a diverse range of backgrounds with two claims about global warming.

The first was that the scientific community was rigidly divided over climate change; with one website alleging "over 31,000" scientists agreed there was no credence the phenomenon was accelerated by human CO2 release.

Also shown was the accurate statement that "97% of scientists agree on man-made climate change".

Participants were asked to guess the percentage of scientific consensus on the issue, with those shown the fact estimating agreement was around 90%, while those exposed to the myth around 63%.

This was a jump of 20 percentage points (from 71%) in opinion difference based on what was believed beforehand among those who heard the scientific fact and a dip of nine percentage points (from 72%) on the opposite side.

In a group shown both claims consecutively, however, there was barely any shift from what was thought by participants initially (a drop of 0.5% to 73%) - suggesting the myth neutralised the lie.

A pair of groups were then shown the scientifically-supported fact, but with a caveat.

One heard simply 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 had the specific myth analysed.

They were then presented with the misinformation.

Despite exposure to fake facts, a jump in the direction of the true figure still followed - up 6.5 percentage points, to 80%, among the former group and up nearly 13 percentage points, to 84%, with the latter.

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