Scientists find ‘vaccine’ for fake news

Research finds exposing people to lies helps to reduce the influence of ‘misinformation’

A psychological tool aimed at immunising the public against the “virus” of fake news and misinformation has been developed by scientists.

Researchers claim to have found a so-called “vaccine” to curb the damaging effects of fact distortion — by exposing them to the lies.

Their study claimed, when presented consecutively, the influence well-established facts about climate change had on people were cancelled out by bogus claims made by campaigners.

But when the information was combined with a small “dose” of the misinformation, the fake news had less resonance, the research, published in the journal Global Challenges, said.


The extra data helped “inoculate” participants by warning of the “distortion tactics” sometimes employed to suit political ends, according to the researchers.

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 per cent 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 per cent, while those exposed to the myth around 63 per cent.

This was a jump of 20 percentage points (from 71 per cent) 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 per cent) 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 per cent to 73 per cent) — 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 per cent, among the former group and up nearly 13 percentage points, to 84 per cent, with the latter.