Fact-checkers are on the frontline in the war against misinformation, and their ranks are growing as falsehoods flood the internet. The number of fact-checkers has doubled since 2016, with nearly 400 now working in more than 100 countries, according to the Duke Reporters’ Lab census.
Research has shown that fact-checking is effective in debunking falsehoods and reducing the spread of misinformation, hoaxes and outright lies, but there are drawbacks to this approach. For one, there will never be enough fact-checkers to expose every false claim online. Misinformation also spreads further and faster than fact-based information and is often hard to refute once it’s lodged in someone’s memory. Another complication is that fact-checks don’t always reach the people who need them most, and finally, like so many things today, the very act of fact-checking has become politicized, according to Pew Research.
So instead of relying exclusively on debunking information, researchers have come up with another technique called prebunking. Prebunking is a preemptive strike—a kind of inoculation against misinformation. Researchers at the University of Cambridge and Google’s Jigsaw studied this approach and produced five short videos to help news consumers spot—and resist—misinformation by exposing them to the most common techniques used when making false claims.
“Think about when you get a vaccine. It has a microdose of the virus. It’s not the whole virus, but it’s like a little piece of it that your body can recognize,” said Beth Goldberg, head of research at Jigsaw, in an interview with the International Fact-checking Network. “It’s the same thing in a prebunking video; we show you a little clip of the propaganda so that you can recognize the manipulation tactics going forward.” Those manipulation tactics include fearmongering, scapegoating, false dichotomies, personal attacks and emotional language.
Here’s one of the videos on false dichotomies, a technique in which two alternatives are presented as the only choices and mutually exclusive. Take a look:
People who watched this 90-second video were twice as good at recognizing and resisting this form of manipulation when surveyed 24 hours later. Here’s another on emotional language and how it’s used to influence behavior:
As you can see, using emotionally charged language is a powerful tool of manipulation and persuasion, especially when it triggers negative emotions like fear, anger and contempt.
Researchers say these videos are so effective because they focus exclusively on how to avoid being manipulated. “Our interventions make no claims about what is true or a fact, which is often disputed,” said lead author Jon Roozenbeek, a postdoctoral fellow with the Social Decision-Making Lab at Cambridge. “The inoculation effect was consistent across liberals and conservatives. It worked for people with different levels of education and different personality types.”
The next step in this research is to determine how long the inoculation effect lasts and whether people need a booster to maintain their defenses against the scourge of misinformation online. In the meantime, you can boost your defenses by watching all five prebunking videos. It’s a small time commitment with a big payoff because once you recognize these techniques, you’ll be less susceptible to both manipulation and false claims.