Psychologists from Bristol and Cambridge universities in the United Kingdom claim they are well on the way, in cooperation with specialists at a unit within Google, to developing a psychological inoculation that helps to build resistance against future manipulation at scale and to identify fake online news.
Researchers working with Jigsaw, a unit within Google dedicated to tackling threats to open societies, have created short video clips to give social media users a taste of the tactics behind fake news with the aim of “inoculating” people against harmful and misleading online content.
The video clips give people a ‘micro-dose’ of misinformation in advance, deployed in YouTube’s advert slot, to familiarize users with manipulation techniques such as scapegoating and deliberate incoherence – ¬ techniques that critics claim are hallmarks of demagogues in the age of fake news.
The findings, involving a total of almost 30,000 participants, were published in Science Advances on Wednesday 24 August 2022.
The experiments are thought to be the first “real world field study” of inoculation theory on a social media platform – and show that a single viewing of a film clip increases awareness of misinformation.
To make them easily accessible, the videos are illustrated with relatable characters from film and TV, such as Family Guy, or, in the case of false dichotomies, a scene from Star Wars, and to expose scapegoating they use a scene from South Park which blamed Canada for American kids swearing.
Researchers behind the Inoculation Science project compare it to a vaccine, explained Professor Sander van der Linden, head of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab (SDML) at the University of Cambridge.
He said: “YouTube has well over two billion active users worldwide and our videos could easily be embedded within the ad space on YouTube to pre-bunk fake news.”
Lead author Dr Jon Roozenbeek, also from the Cambridge SDML, said: “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.”
Google, YouTube’s parent company, is already harnessing the findings. At the end of August, Jigsaw will roll out a pre-bunking campaign across several platforms in Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic to get ahead of emerging disinformation relating to Ukrainian refugees.
“We’ve shown that video ads as a delivery method of pre-bunking messages can be used to reach millions of people, potentially before harmful narratives take hold,” said Beth Goldberg, head of research and development for Google’s Jigsaw unit.
The team behind the research believe that pre-bunking may be more effective at fighting the misinformation deluge than fact-checking each untruth after it spreads – the classic ‘debunk’ – which is impossible to do at scale and can entrench conspiracy theories by feeling like personal attacks to those who believe the fake news.
Recognizing the misinformation playbook
“Propaganda, lies and mis-directions are nearly always created from the same playbook,” said co-author of the study, Professor Stephan Lewandowsky from the University of Bristol.
“We developed the videos by analysing the rhetoric of demagogues who deal in scapegoating and false dichotomies.
“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.”
Google Jigsaw exposed around 5.4 million YouTubers in the United States to one of the inoculation videos, with almost a million watching for at least 30 seconds, and reported that despite the intense ‘noise’ and distractions on YouTube, ability to recognise manipulation techniques at the heart of misinformation increased by 5% on average.
Lewandowsky, chair in cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol, specialises in research into people’s responses to misinformation to understand why they reject well-established scientific facts such as climate change or the effectiveness of vaccinations, and discussed his findings at the 2022 annual conference of EUPRIO, the European association of university communication professionals, in Zürich, Switzerland on Monday 29 August.
Confronting the demagogues
His keynote opening speech, titled “Communicating science in a post-truth world”, urged universities to be more forceful in calling out populist politicians and other promoters of fake news, who claim to be champions of the real people against the establishment and elites, including scientists.
With the growing risk of being labelled ‘woke’ or ‘left wing’ for speaking out against false and misleading claims, Lewandowsky told University World News that too many university leaders and scientists are keeping their heads down and avoiding confrontation with the demagogues.
Quoting a Washington Post fact-checkers database updated on 20 January 2021, Lewandowsky said it was reported that during his four years in office as United States president, Donald Trump made 30,573 false or misleading claims, many of which could be easily disproven and flagrantly flouted the norms of truth telling.
But despite Trump putting his so-called “authenticity before accuracy and veracity”, Lewandowsky said: “Repeated polling showed that three-quarters of Republicans considered Trump to be honest.”
Lewandowsky also cites data showing that Republicans are changing their views on whether colleges and universities have a positive or negative effect on the way things are going in the United States, with Republican support for higher education falling from 53% to 33% between 2012 and 2019.
Among Democrat-leaning voters, 67% were positive about the role of colleges and universities in 2012, going up to 72% in 2017, before falling back to 67% in 2019.
Lewandowsky argues that in spite of looking for evidence to the contrary, his research and that of others, including Dr Aviva Philipp-Muller, professor at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University in Canada, whose work was the subject of a recent article in University World News, showed that “people on the right, conservatives or libertarians, were less likely to accept scientific evidence than liberals, progressives, left-wingers.”
This was highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic when more than half of the people refusing the vaccine in Germany identified themselves as having voted for the right-wing AfD party.
A similar pattern is shown by those who refuse to accept climate change, Lewandowsky told University World News. “There are exceptions, such as the committed Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger speaking out on climate change, and they can be very effective in talking to conservatives.
“But what I am saying is that generally people on the left tend to trust scientists more than those on the right.”
Lewandowsky believes that the vast majority of people, 80% or more, are open to arguments about climate change and the value of vaccination, but accepts there is a hard core, or between 10% and 20%, who will never be convinced by the science.
He argues that universities have a crucial role in highlighting a consensus among experts to convince the vast majority of the value of scientific evidence, particularly if the experiments he and colleagues at Cambridge University have been conducting in inoculation techniques to combat online fake news are used more widely.
Brexit: ‘Populism on steroids’
One issue he wants British universities to be braver about is the impact of Brexit, which he describes as “populism on steroids”.
“The referendum [about leaving the European Union] gave licence to populism and authoritarianism because it was so ill defined and nobody knew what it meant and the people who took over the government used it to label any opposition ‘re-moaners’.
“That’s what makes populism so dangerous. It is dictatorship in drag, authoritarianism dressed up as the will of the people and, of course, it isn’t. It’s just what powerful people determine it is and the tragedy of Brexit was that the referendum was so ill defined that it left open the door to wannabe autocrats to define it on the fly as it were.
“But sadly, UK universities appear afraid to speak up about what’s happening as a consequence of Brexit.
“I know universities and the judiciary are under attack and get called ‘woke’, but they are among the few still able to face down those who ruthlessly promote fake news and populist agendas and distort scientific facts with their own misleading claims.
“It is everyone’s civic duty to defend democracy and universities should be leaders in this endeavour.”