Short animations about misinformation tactics can help people understand harmful content on social media, according to a major online study published in the journal Science Advances.
Working alongside Jigsaw, a section of Google dedicated to tackling threats to social media, a team of researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Bristol, UK, created 90-second animated videos designed to teach Youtube users about manipulation of information, including scapegoating and deliberate incoherence. The videos present different types of misinformation, using known films and TV series such as Family Guy and Star Wars to explain the concepts. This pre-emptively prepares viewers exposed to propaganda so they cab identify online falsehoods regardless of the subject. Researchers behind the project compare it to a vaccine: the videos give people a small dose of misinformation in advance, which in turn helps them spot it in the future.
The team conducted seven online experiments involving almost 30,000 participants and concluded that even just a single viewing of a film clip increases awareness of misinformation.
“YouTube has well over 2 billion active users worldwide. Our videos could easily be embedded within the ad space on YouTube to prebunk misinformation,” said study co-author Prof Sander van der Linden, Head of the Social Decision-Making Lab (SDML) at Cambridge, which led the work. “Our research provides the necessary proof of concept that the principle of psychological inoculation can readily be scaled across hundreds of millions of users worldwide.”
Lead author Dr. Jon Roozenbeek from Cambridge’s SDML explains that the sources of the videos won’t be displayed to avoid biases people have about where information comes from and how it resembles or does not with what they already believe.
“Our interventions make no claims about what is true or a fact, which is often disputed. They are effective for anyone who does not appreciate being manipulated,” he said. “The inoculation effect was consistent across liberals and conservatives. It worked for people with different levels of education and different personality types. This is the basis of a general inoculation against misinformation.”
Google is already working on the results. At the end of August, Jigsaw will roll out a campaign in Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic to fight misinformation about Ukrainian refugees. The aim is to teach viewers about harmful anti-refugee narratives.
“Harmful misinformation takes many forms, but the manipulative tactics and narratives are often repeated and can therefore be predicted,” said Beth Goldberg, co-author and Head of Research and Development for Google’s Jigsaw unit. “Teaching people about techniques like ad-hominem attacks that set out to manipulate them can help build resilience to believing and spreading misinformation in the future. We’ve shown that video ads as a delivery method of prebunking messages can be used to reach millions of people, potentially before harmful narratives take hold.”
The researchers believe that teaching viewers about different misinformation methods is better than fact-checking each untruth as it spreads. This is impossible to do on a large scale and often strengthens conspiracy theories because people feel like they’re personal attacks.
“Propaganda, lies, and misdirections are nearly always created from the same playbook. We developed the videos by analysing the rhetoric of demagogues, who deal in scapegoating and false dichotomies,” said co-author Prof Stephan Lewandowsky from the University of Bristol. “Fact-checkers can only rebut a fraction of the falsehoods circulating online. We need to teach people to recognise the misinformation playbook, so they understand when they are being misled.”
The team found that inoculation videos improved viewers’ abilities to detect misinformation and boosted their confidence in being able to do it again. The videos also seem to prevent people from sharing videos without even checking if it’s true. The authors say that this has the potential to be a game changer if scaled up across multiple social platforms.
All the videos and background information can be found at https://inoculation.science/
Roozenbeek J, Van der Linden S, Goldberg B et al (2022) Psychological inoculation improves resilience against misinformation on social media. Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abo6254