Categories: Skepticism

How to Debunk Misinformation

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Every year or so, there’s a new study put out by psychologists telling us another reason why I shouldn’t bother debunking pseudoscience. I mean, not me in particular, though I’m sure some of you are already thinking of the good reasons. No, I mean studies like the ones that show debunking pseudoscience only makes people dig their heels in harder, or years later people only remember the myth and not the debunking.

With all that bad news, it can be hard to know what the hell to do about all the “fake news” flying around. And I mean actual fake news, not whatever Donald Trump thinks shouldn’t be true.

A new study published recently in the journal Psychological Science helps out a bit, especially considering that this isn’t a single study but a meta-analysis of a lot of previous research that allows us to sort through our options. They looked at 20 different experiments that involved nearly 7,000 people in total.

The analysis did confirm some of the pessimistic research: yes, it is possible to strengthen misinformation by attempting to debunk it. That happens most often when you just come out and say that a thing is wrong, without explaining why, or even just offering a very quick explanation. That bit was counterintuitive to me — I’ve always struggled to try to present corrections as simply and concisely as possible, even if that means leaving out some details. This research suggests that the details really matter. You convince more people to change their minds and reject misinformation when you give them adequate reason to do so.

Even then, you have to accept that not everyone will be convinced to drop the misinformation. This analysis suggests that there really is no silver bullet to kill 100% of all misinformation in one shot. The best you can do is convince the people who are convincible and let the “True Believers” go.

Another finding was that people are most thoroughly convinced when they’re not just told the correct information, but when they are included in the process of breaking down why the misinformation is false. The researchers explained that that can be accomplished in part by outlets encouraging well-moderated discussions, which is a big ol’ “Oh shit” moment for everyone who thought the answer to idiots in comment sections was just to turn off comments. Nope: it turns out that the comments can help, so long as they are heavily moderated. The discussion’s focus needs to be on the new, true information and not on the misinformation. You can’t just have a bunch of conspiracy theorists screaming about crisis actors when you’re trying to discuss why gun control is a necessary thing.

In other words, this analysis shows that correcting misinformation is possible, but it’s really, really hard, and it’s a job that will never be completed. After doing this job for 10 years, I can’t say I disagree.


Rebecca Watson: Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.