A vaccine for the times?

A new study from the University of Cambridge suggests there may actually be a vaccine for social media-based research, finding that being exposed to small amounts of misinformation could protect people against it in the future.

Based on inoculation theory, two experiments involving more than 2100 people showed that just 15 minutes exposure to fake and real news headlines improved people’s ability to spot certain real-world examples of misinformation.

By using an active, technique-based inoculation intervention, Bad News, a free online browser game in which players learn about six common misinformation techniques, participants showed increased psychological resistance against real-world misinformation that went viral on social media.

Bad News induced detectable inoculation effects for up to 13 weeks after gameplay – if players were given regular reminders or ‘booster shots’ – and similar effects were found across different language versions of the game.

The study, published on the 18th of May in the journal Royal Society Open Science, also found that playing the game slightly decreased the perceived reliability of real news, but stressed this was to a much smaller extent.

Lead author Dr Jon Roozenbeek described how Bad News was shown to improve people’s skill in spotting manipulative social media posts and boost people’s confidence in their ability to identify misinformation.

“The benefit of technique-based and active inoculations lie in both their potential scalability and applicability, as they prepare individuals to resist being persuaded by messages that may be different in content but use the same underlying persuasion strategy,” he stated.

“The fast-paced nature of online misinformation means that the misleading content is topically varied and constantly evolving, and therefore it is arguably more effective to target the persuasive techniques, which largely remain the same.

“Overall, we find that playing the Bad News game significantly decreases the perceived accuracy of false headlines… leading to improved truth discernment.”

Dr Roozenbeek said the game could be used in school media literacy studies and, alongside other tools, may help to counter online misinformation.

“The game may be implemented as part of media literacy curricula in schools and deployed in conjunction with other anti-misinformation tools to improve resilience against online misinformation at scale.”

Players take on the role of a fake news creator and during the game, are warned about the threat of misinformation and exposed to weakened doses of the strategies used in its production, consistent with the mechanisms of inoculation theory.

Inoculation theory posits that pre-emptively exposing individuals to a weakened form of a misleading argument (passive inoculation) as well as teaching individuals how to refute those arguments (active inoculation) triggers the production of ‘mental antibodies.’

This process has been shown to confer psychological resistance against future manipulation attempts, much like a medical vaccine induces resistance against a particular pathogen.

Recent research also demonstrates that inoculation can bolster resistance to persuasion, even when people are already familiar with the topic or have already been exposed to the misinformation before – a process known as ‘therapeutic inoculation’.

Therapeutic inoculation mirrors recent advances in medicine, where therapeutic vaccines can still boost the production of antibodies even when people have already been infected.