Misinformation can do damage!

With everything we hear today about “fake news,” so many opinions, and so many sources of information, it can be hard to distinguish the truth and what is not. To help reduce the misinformation in our society, a team of 22 prominent scholars got together to write “The Debunking Handbook 2020,” which summarises the current state of the science of misinformation and its debunking.

So what is misinformation? Misinformation is false information that spreads by mistake or with intent to mislead, but fear not, the Debunking Handbook 2020 provides a quick guide to responding to misinformation.

Misinformation can do damage, it has the potential to cause substantial harm to individuals and society; for example, when parents don’t vaccinate their kids because of mistaken beliefs,
there is damaged caused to their wellbeing and a cost to the health care system. What if people fall for conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19? They will be less likely to comply with government guidelines and society suffers.

We’ll believe things that we have heard many times rather than new information, this is called the “illusory truth effect”. Thus, the more people that see a piece of misinformation and do not challenge it, the more the misinformation seems true, and the more it sticks, even if it is blatantly false. Repeated exposure to information or misinformation tilts people towards believing it.

Misinformation can be sticky! Corrections may reduce people’s beliefs in false information but the misinformation often continues to influence people’s thinking, this is known as the “continued influence effect”. Say you fall ill from food poisoning after eating in a restaurant but later you learn that the information was not accurate, that it was not food poisoning; you might still avoid the restaurant allegedly involved.

Fact-checking and corrections appear to “work” when you ask people directly about their beliefs and even though misinformation is sticky, we have opportunities to respond by preventing misinformation from taking root in the first place.

Preventing misinformation from taking place. The best strategy is prevention and there are several prevention strategies that work.

Warning people that they might be misinformed can reduce reliance on misinformation. Specific warnings that content may be false have been shown to reduce the likelihood that people will share the information online Inoculation or “prebunking” includes a forewarning as well as a preemptive refutation

Debunk often and properly. If you cannot preempt, you must debunk. For debunking to be effective, it is important to provide detailed refutations and explain why the information is false and what is true instead. When those detailed refutations are provided, misinformation can be “unstuck.” Without detailed refutations, the misinformation may continue to stick around despite correction attempts. If you have friends or family who might not have the right information, you must read “The Debunking Handbook 2020” it could be the “light in the dark” our society needs today.


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