An Experiment In Misinformation Has A Chance To “Immunize” Millions Of Social Media Users

Cloud Front

You must have heard the saying, “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet,” right? And that’s because there is a ton of fake news, fake data, just fake information all over the world wide web that leads to major misinformation.

Well, new research has found that by exposing social media users to the many tricks behind all the false information that’s shared online, they’ve managed to raised awareness of all of these different kinds of so-called “fake news.” In this light, Google is working towards putting an anti-disinformation campaign in place because of the study findings.

The online experiment, which was led by researchers from the University of Cambridge, put short animations in YouTube Ad slots, providing their viewers with an idea of the strategies used in many types of misinformation propaganda.

The team of psychologists from the universities of Cambridge and Bristol worked with Jigsaw, a unit within Google that works precisely to handle ‘threats to open societies,’ as they say on their website. Together, they made 90-second clips designed precisely to enlighten users to the manipulation techniques like ‘scapegoating and deliberate incoherence.’

This “pre-bunking” strategy, as they call it, is meant to exposes people early on to the very root of all of this malicious misinformation. That way, they don’t have to be victims but rather, they will be able to identify what is real and what is false online, regardless of what type of information they are looking at.

Called the Inoculation Science project, the researchers behind this undertaking compare it to a vaccine. They explain that by giving people a “micro-dose” of misinformation in advance, it actually helps stop them from falling for these types of misinformation in the future. This idea was actually based on what social psychologists’ call the “inoculation theory.”

The researchers published their findings in Science Advances, which were a result of at least seven experiments that involved at total of around 30,000 participants. This also included the first “real world field study” done using the inoculation theory on a social media platform, they note.

According to the research team, just a single viewing of even one of their film clips managed to increase the awareness to their viewers of misinformation online.

These videos managed to introduce the concepts form the “misinformation playbook,” which is illustrated with relatable examples from popular TV series’ or films, like that from Star Wars, which has false dichotomies, or from Family Guy.

Head of the Social Decision-Making Lab at Cambridge and study co-author, Prof. Sander van der Linden, who also led the study said, “YouTube has well over 2 billion active users worldwide. Our videos could easily be embedded within the ad space on YouTube to ‘pre-bunk’ misinformation.”

“Our research provides the necessary proof of concept that the principle of psychological inoculation can readily be scaled across hundreds of millions of users worldwide,” he added.

As for Dr. Jon Roozenbeek, lead author of the study also from the Cambridge Lab, he explaines the team’s videos as “source agnostic,” which avoids biases most people have about where their information comes from, as well as how it aligns, or doesn’t align, with what they may already believe.

He 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.”

He also shared, “The inoculation effect was consistent across liberals and conservatives. It worked for people with different levels of education, and different personality types.”

Google, which is YouTube’s parent company, they are already in the process of harnessing these findings. By the end of August, Jigsaw plans to roll out a ‘pre-bunking’ campaign on a number of different platforms, including Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic in order to debunk or disprove misleading information related to the Ukrainian refugees that have been forced from their country due to the Russian-led war. This particular campaign was also designed to ‘build resilience to harmful anti-refugee narratives,’ having partnered with such groups as the local NGOs, academics, fact checkers, and disinformation experts.

Co-author and Head of Research and Development for Google’s Jigsaw unit, Beth Goldberg, explained, “Harmful misinformation takes many forms, but the manipulative tactics and narratives are often repeated and can therefore be predicted.”

“Teaching people about techniques that manipulate them, like ad-hominem attacks, can help build resilience to believing and spreading misinformation, before harmful narratives take hold,” she said.

Moreover, the team contends that ‘pre-bunking’ may even be more effective at stopping misinformation than actual fact-checking each untruth since this is actually an impossibility at such a large scale. Plus it has the potential to even feed into more conspiracy theories as a result.

Another co-author, Prof. Stephan Lewandowsky from the University of Bristol claimed, “Propaganda, lies and mis-directions are nearly always created from the same playbook. We developed the videos by analyzing the rhetoric of demagogues, who deal in scapegoating and false dichotomies.”

He added, “Fact-checkers can only rebut a fraction of the falsehoods circulating online. We need to teach people to recognize the misinformation playbook, so they understand when they are being misled.”

There were initially six controlled experiments, featuring 6,464 participants. The sixth experiment was conducted a whole year after the first five experiments in order to make sure the earlier findings could be duplicated.

Every participants was asked for their data, from the basic info like age, gender, education and political preferences, to their levels of numeracy – which is their ability to understand and to work with numbers. They were also asked about conspiratorial thinking, gullibility, how many hours they spend looking at social media and news, as well as personality inventory and on many other parameters.

After collating all the data, the team saw that the inoculation videos managed to improve the participants’ abilities to spot misinformation, boosting their confidence when it came to being able to spot misleading information again. Moreover, the clips also improved the decision making for “sharing decisions,” which was whether or not they should share the alleged “damaging” content.

Afterwards, two of the animations were tested to be part of a large YouTube experiment. The clips were placed in the pre-video advert slot of the website which provides the option to skip it after five seconds.

Google’s Jigsaw managed to show it to around 5.4 million Americans YouTubers, with around a million watching it for at least 30 seconds. Then, they gave a random 30% of users made to watch the video a voluntary test question within the first 24 hours of their first viewing.

The clips were developed precisely to inoculate people against the tactics normally used to spread misinformation, such as the use of hyper-emotive language and the use of false dichotomies. They then did follow-up questions, which were based on fictional posts created just to test for the detection of such propaganda. Then, YouTube also provided a “control” group of users that didn’t view the video with the same test question. What they found was that 22,632 users answered a question.

You can see more about this in the clip below:


Regardless of the major distractions there are on YouTube, the ability to recognize manipulation techniques at the very center of this misinformation has increased by at least 5% on average.

Prof. van der Linden shared,  “Users participated in the tests around 18 hours on average after watching the videos, so the inoculation appears to have stuck.”

The researchers also explain that if other social media platforms joined in, there could be a rapid increase of misinformation recognition. And moreover, it would be quite inexpensive to do since the average case for every view of a significant amount of time would only cost $0.05.

Prof. Roozenbeek added, “If anyone wants to pay for a YouTube campaign that measurably reduces susceptibility to misinformation across millions of users, they can do so, and at a minuscule cost per view.”


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