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What the Research Says: How can we stop the spread of misinformation?

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I have done a lot of my own research on this topic.”

Younger people nowadays think you know more than us older folks!”

You don’t need to fact-check every single thing.” 

Anyone who has ever faced the heartache and displeasure of battling misinformation would probably be familiar with these types of statements. The thing about misinformation is that anyone can fall for it at some point or other – even the best of us have probably mixed up some slivers of conspiracy theories, falsehoods or myths. 

But misinformation can impact society so greatly that it can cost us actual human lives. The pandemic has shown us how vaccine hesitancy and beliefs in unproven remedies have impacted public and global health. Our recent Mama Secrets session also revealed how relationships between family members and friends have fractured as a result.

What can we do?

The best way to combat the fake is to look at the facts.  Here are some of the findings of those who have conducted academic studies and research on this topic:

1. Stop, think, and reason on social media

The #PledgetoPause campaign by the United Nations and Global Citizen to fight misinformation
Graphic: https://shareverified.com/pledge-to-pause/

Misinformation can be defined as “cases in which people’s beliefs about factual matters are not supported by clear evidence and expert opinion.” Research shows that what is happening in your parents’ Whatsapp chat groups is happening a lot when it comes to misinformation – it is shared on impulse, very quickly and without much thought

This is why many experts on fake news and misinformation, such as David Rand, a professor of management science and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, say the best advice you can give to your loved ones is simply to slow down, pause and think

Encourage your family members and friends to do this, and to remind them that not everyone has to be a ‘breaking news provider’. 

Tip:  Find a way to relate this to financial scams or frauds they have heard of. Remind them just as there are so many out there eager to steal your money or information, there are also equally as many individuals taking advantage of social and digital platforms to deceive or mislead others through creating or disseminating disinformation. Emphasise fact-checking before sharing.

Ask: Would you like me to go through what hoaxes can look like online with you? Can you see the misspellings here, have you checked if this quoted person exists?

2. Don’t be overly accepting of weak claims

Research also shows that people most likely to believe misinformation and fake news overclaim their level of knowledge and are impressed by ‘pseudo profound bullshit’ – statements that appear to be deep and have no actual real meaning (“We are in the midst of a high-frequency blossoming of interconnectedness that will give us access to the quantum soup itself”, for example).

Randomly generated sayings from the New Age Bullshit Generator

Behavioural scientist Gordon Pennycook said that there was “a general tendency for people to engage in what is called ‘reflexive open-mindedness’, which means they were overly willing to accept or believe a wide variety of claims without thinking analytically about them.” 

Tip: While it is tempting to wave this finding in the face of your loved ones, it is not a good idea to tell a believer of misinformation or conspiracy theorists that they are brainwashed, stupid or weak, says cult deprogrammer and mind control expert Steve Hassan. “That’s toxic and going to drive the person deeper by persecuting them,” he said.

Hassan adds that it takes time for people to change their views, but they can be pulled away from conspiracies if people engage with them and continue to be respectful.

Source: International Federation of Library Associations

3. Understand the fear and concern

It is easy to feel angry and frustrated with people who believe misinformation to such an extent that their actions impact public health. But Jeanine Guidry, who has conducted many studies about social media and health communications, said the majority of people who spread these pieces of misinformation are people who are truly just scared or concerned.

“They really think that this may hurt them or their family or their kids now, or in 10 years,” she has said in an interviewI don’t think we have done a particularly good job as a society in making sure that people understand how science works and how it should be communicated.”

Other research has found that indeed, emotional mindsets such as anger and anxiety also make people more vulnerable to falling for misinformation. The pandemic has only served to exacerbate this. People need to be reminded that emotion influences the choices we make, but sometimes it can also cloud our judgment and make us susceptible to group-think. (Which explains the influence and predominance of your parent’s WhatsApp groups!) 

Tip: Guidry offers perhaps the most reassuring advice of them all – Encouraging someone to get vaccinated is probably best done person to person and not over social media. She says it starts with keeping lines of communication open and to try to do it in person, private chat or over a phone call. “People may not be willing to listen right now, but maybe they will in three months. And if that line of communication is closed, then how do we get past that?” she has said.

4. Practise what we preach, educate everyone and ourselves

This is probably the hardest part. We should also arm ourselves and our children so that we are not vulnerable to misinformation. The experts say the ideal scenario is to arm our family and friends from falling for misinformation in the first place. Train them to be less vulnerable to fake news – because it is harder to correct or change their beliefs after misinformation has taken hold.

Tip #1:

Media literacy and statistical literacy will be some of the most important weapons we will have in this post-truth age. People who understand statistics and data are more likely to wear a mask, practise social distancing and get vaccinated to prevent others from getting infected, according to research findings.

Ask: “Who is saying this, can you provide the names of the researchers?” or “Are you sure that is what those statistics mean?”

Here’s an example of someone showing how statistical literacy works and can be succinctly employed:

A screenshot from comments on Covid vaccinations from BBC News’ Facebook page. The comment below offers statistical context to the information debated upon.

Tip #2:

Make sure that your family and friends see you practising good verification habits. Let them hear you say things like “Let me check that source first” or “Let me get back to you, I do not share information that can’t be verified”. Tell them there are good non-profit organisations such as Politifact, Factcheck.org, and Snopes to judge the accuracy of stories or articles.

In Malaysia, we have independent agencies Faqcheck.org and Mycheck under Bernama. To check our own biases and to practise media literacy skills like lateral reading, watch the following video by media literacy expert Jimmeka Anderson

The New Normal: 5 tips to spot misinformation and prevent its spread.

Tip #3:

Do your homework. According to Harvard University cognitive scientist Nadia Brashier, we can actually correct someone’s thinking if we can replace a piece of misinformation with something concrete. Share replacement facts for falsehoods you see being shared. She also says repeated information feels truer than newer information, which explains the firm grip repeated fake news or misinformation has on your family or friends.

Tip #4:

Photo by Eaters Collective on Unsplash

Try the ‘truth sandwich’. This method involves stating what is true, reporting that a false claim has been made about that truth, and then repeating what is actually true. Avoid repeating the falsehood (or to try and avoid it completely), because when you amplify the lie, you give it power.

An example of a truth sandwich, as given by cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky, is as follows:

  • “ … Start with the key facts, including that the vaccines have been shown to be 95 per cent effective and have been comprehensively tested without cutting any corners. 
  • Then address the misinformation. For instance, if people say the vaccine can’t have been tested properly because it was developed so quickly, explain why this isn’t the case. Given the severity of the pandemic, more resources and expertise than ever were dedicated to this effort. Due to its high profile, volunteers for the trials were recruited much faster than usual. 
  • The Ebola vaccine effectively took ten months from initial testing to trials in the field, so this has been done before. Then finally reiterate the facts so they stay fresh (in the) mind.”

Tip #5:

Photo by athensinsider.com

Researcher and moderator of the subreddit, r/ChangeMyOpinion, Stuart Johnson, said an effective way to talk to people who believe in misinformation like conspiracy theories is to use the Socratic method of questioning. This challenges people to come up with sources, defend their positions and reveal inconsistencies themselves. 

Example of  Socratic questions would include: 

  • “Why do you believe this source over another?”;
  • But there is no medical product or medical intervention, from aspirin to heart surgery that can be guaranteed 100% safe. Do you see other medical products or interventions differently?”;
  • “Okay, so there could be some potential for Ivermectin, but why do you think no government in the world has approved Ivermectin specifically for treating Covid?”; or
  • “You say you will consume Ivermectin, which has no conclusive evidence yet. But you doubt Covid vaccinations, which have undergone rigorous testing in clinical trials and have been validated by the WHO and global regulatory agencies? Can you explain why?”

Tip #6:

All individuals should follow a diversity of news sources, and be sceptical of what they read and watch. The best protection against false news and misinformation is to follow, engage and be friends with a diversity of people and perspectives.

Are you friends with different academics, doctors, journalists or science-savvy professionals? Do you have close peers from various social groups, ethnicities, religions and countries? A wide range of sources enables you to hear well-balanced and diverse viewpoints which will buffer you against misinformation, intolerance and close-mindedness.

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

5. Say something, anything

Lastly, every little push against misinformation counts.

Social psychologist H. Colleen Sinclair says even short-format refutations like ‘this isn’t true’ are more effective than saying nothing. Shifting someone’s perspective even a little can add up in the long run. 

“When actual people correct misinformation online, it can be as effective, if not more so, as when a social media company labels something as questionable.

“Stand with those who stand up. If you don’t and something gets shared over and over, that reinforces people’s beliefs that it is OK to share misinformation – because everyone else is doing it, and only a few, if any, are objecting.

Allowing misinformation to spread also makes it more likely that even more people will start to believe it – because people come to believe things they hear repeatedly, even if they know at first they’re not true.”

By Laych Koh

From our team of purposeful, multi-faceted mummies. For editorial or general enquiries, email to us at hello@makchic.com.