How to debunk fake news

Fake news is one of the hottest trends of the past year or so, but the question of how to correct fake news when it appears remains largely unanswered.  There are numerous services existing to attempt to correct fake stories when they emerge and to provide a factual baseline, but these are seldom used.

A new paper suggests that a more effective solution is to provide a detailed counter-message, complete with new information.  This will help your audience to form a whole new narrative.  The authors are under no illusion as to the size of this task however.

“The effect of misinformation is very strong,” they say. “When you present it, people buy it. But we also asked whether we are able to correct for misinformation. Generally, some degree of correction is possible but it’s very difficult to completely correct.”

What underlies effective messaging?

The team first sought to understand exactly what underlies effective messages so that they can begin to counter attitudes that are based upon fake information.

They analyzed thousands of news stories from 50 or so different sources over an 11 year period, with stories coded according to their accuracy.  They also measured the effect of reading this misinformation, of trying to debunk it, and the persistence of falsely held beliefs.

“This analysis provides evidence of the value of the extended correction of misinformation,” the team say. “Simply stating that something is false or providing a brief explanation is largely ineffective.”

It probably goes without saying that the more detailed the fake news, the more effort needs to go into fixing the narrative.  Instead, the key to the persistence of fake news is in the audience itself.

“A detailed debunking message correlated positively with the debunking effect. Surprisingly, however, a detailed debunking message also correlated positively with the misinformation-persistence effect,” the authors note.

They also suggest that debunking is more effective when the audience is able to develop a fresh explanation for the corrected information.  It’s a way for them to construct reasons why their initial information is not correct.  For news outlets, this could involve involving the audience in correcting the information, perhaps by encouraging commentary or offering moderated reader chats.

The team boil their recommendations down into three core strategies:

  1. Reduce arguments that support misinformation: News accounts about misinformation should not inadvertently repeat or belabor “detailed thoughts in support of the misinformation.”
  2. Engage audiences in scrutiny and counterarguing of information: Educational institutions should promote a state of healthy skepticism. When trying to correct misinformation, it is beneficial to have the audience involved in generating counterarguments.
  3. Introduce new information as part of the debunking message: People are less likely to accept debunking when the initial message is just labeled as wrong rather than countered with new evidence.
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