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Media Matters: A new hope for a better way to fight fake news

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Media Matters: A new hope for a better way to fight fake news
Brandon Mitchener

The world is awash in fake news, be it sloppy misinformation or deliberate disinformation. But there is a new approach that gives hope for a better way of fighting it—an approach which governments, companies, trade associations and all sorts of professional communicators ought to study carefully. Brandon Mitchener, Managing Partner of the Instinctif Partners office in Brussels and a former journalist and communications director, explains.


Misleading news has always existed. What has changed, made fake news the “word of the year” in 2017 when Donald Trump was the president of the United States and remains a preoccupation of democratic governments everywhere is the speed with which misinformation now spreads via media and social media. Fake news now spreads so fast, and infects so many people, many of whom share the fake news with their circle of friends and contacts, that it undermines rational thinking and results in decisions that are harmful to society. To cite just two examples, take unjustified vaccine scepticism and the people who refuse to believe the overwhelming scientific evidence that humans are contributing to accelerating climate change. Despite what your cousin might have told you, vaccines work and are safe and climate change is happening and human activity is a significant cause of it.  

Many blame social media, but traditional news media share part of the blame, reporting and repeating false claims (think “stolen election” and “Frankenfoods”) so often that many people can be forgiven for believing them even if the media point out that a claim is false. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, right? Hmm, not always.

The tragedy of fake news is that the traditional approach to dealing with it—“fact-checking” news after-the-fact and naming and shaming the people who perpetrate lies—rarely reaches most of the people who saw and/or shared the fake news in the first place, leaving it to fester and grow and undermine our democracies. That’s not to say that the venerable Snopes.com, International Fact-Checking Network and similar initiatives aren’t noble causes. They are. Someone has to do it, and people interested in facts—I confess that it’s one of my character faults—can easily find answers on their websites.

Pre-bunking vs. de-bunking

Some organisations, including Lie Detectors, have taken the opposite approach, “pre-bunking” fake news before it happens through media literacy education rather than de-bunking it after-the-fact. But such initiatives often lack scale. One notable exception is GIZ, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit or German development agency, which recently launched a Digital Enquirers Kit (with help from Instinctif Partners) to educate journalists in developing countries worldwide on how to spot and combat misinformation and protect themselves from governments spreading it.

Now psychologists at the universities of Cambridge and Bristol, are scaling up the the “pre-bunking” fight in a way that could be a game-changer. Working together with Jigsaw, an anti-extremism research group within Google and YouTube, they will soon begin serving up a series of video ads designed to fight the spread of anti-migrant sentiment in Poland, Czechia and Slovakia.

A paper the scientists published recently in the journal Science Advances, citing preliminary research on a smaller scale, argues that this could actually work. “We provide strong evidence that technique-based inoculation videos can confer psychological resistance against manipulation techniques commonly encountered in online misinformation.” The one-month experiment aims to prove it.

Here’s how it works: Rather than tackle a specific case of misinformation or disinformation, the videos, which you can see here, target broad classes of tricks that professional liars use to dupe you including “the use of excessively emotional language, incoherence, false dichotomies, scapegoating and ad hominem attacks.”

In each case, they grab your attention with a playful taunt, then tell you that’s what they did, and then tell you why you fell for it and how to guard against it going forward. They employ non-political, non-partisan examples and excerpts from pop culture including the Simpsons, South Park and Star Wars. The intent, as the authors of the paper state, is to “inoculate” people against misinformation much the way vaccines inoculate against diseases. The research showed that people not only were more likely to recognise the warning signs of fake news but were also less likely to share it with their contacts via social media.

What does this mean for professional, fact-based communicators fighting their own disinformation wars? A psychology-based digital campaign that employs a combination of clickbait, humour and education may be the missing ingredient—and even the silver bullet—in your arsenal. Companies have to deal in facts and try to correct the record when media and social media spread misinformation about them. But they are probably fighting a losing battle if they only try to do it using traditional requests for corrections and letters to the editor. The damage is already done.

Based on the research that inspired the latest initiative, a better approach would be to create provocative, humorous, psychology-infused content and promote it to the same people seeing and spreading misinformation about your country, company or industry.

Please get in touch if you’d like to explore that sort of novel approach! We’ve been there and done that. brandon.mitchener@instinctif.com

Read: Ed Amory examines how to save democracy from disinformation and division


Full disclosure corner: Google is an Instinctif client. Instinctif is not involved at all with the project described. We learned about the project through the media—and hope it succeeds.

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