How We Can Immunize Ourselves Against Bogus Information

Researchers say attacking misinformation is like vaccinating against a disease.
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How We Can Immunize Ourselves Against Bogus Information

We have our pick of contentious debates these days: climate change, vaccination, evolution. But outright dismissing one side of an argument as misinformation or "fake news" can make people even less likely to see your point of view. Instead, researchers say you should try chipping away at the problem.

Psychologists at the University of Cambridge found if you train people to recognize falsehood bit by bit, they're more likely to discount it. They say a drip feed of critical thinking is like being vaccinated against a disease.

For example, the researchers had people read about the climate debate. In one corner are the 97 percent of climate scientists who agree climate change is caused by human activity. In the other is a misleading petition said to be signed by thousands of scientists who dispute that consensus.

People who read only the facts were more likely to agree with the consensus of scientific findings. Those who read only the petition were less likely to agree.

Exposure to both viewpoints at once barely shifted their stance at all. But people who got little reminders about the political motivations of the petition increased their chances of siding with the consensus. And detailed reminders about strange and inconsistent signatures on the list increased them even more.

This critical-thinking training can apply to any debate, and the researchers say that stands to do some public good. One expert says if people build a "cognitive repertoire" of what misinformation looks like, they'll be more likely to recognize and resist it.