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“Psychological inoculation” is effective against misinformation: what is it?


Psychological inoculation is effective in helping people recognize misinformation, according to a study published in August 2022 in the journal Science Advances.

It consists in exposing people in a preventive way to disinformation techniques so that they can better identify them, whatever the subject discussed.

The strategy is compared to a vaccine: giving a “micro-dose” of misinformation in advance prevents people from getting caught in the future. The inoculation is not about specific topics or viewpoints but about methods of disinformation.

It is a ” prebunking which, according to the theory, could be more effective in combating the deluge of misinformation than the classic “debunkingi.e. fact-checking after every untruth has been released, which is impossible to do on a large scale, and which can reinforce conspiracy theories by being felt as personal attacks by people who believe in it.

Jon Roozenbeek and his colleagues (1) from the psychology departments of the universities of Cambridge and Bristol as well as Google Jigsawhave developed five 90-second videos designed to familiarize users with the following manipulation techniques.

  • Using emotionally manipulative language

    Emotions are powerful tools of persuasion. Research shows that using emotional words, especially those that evoke negative emotions like fear or outrage, increases the viral potential of content on social media.

  • The inconsistency

    Inconsistency occurs when someone uses two or more arguments to make a point that cannot logically be true at the same time.

  • The false dichotomy

    A false dichotomy (or false dilemma) is a fallacy in which a limited number of choices or sides are presented as the only possible ones, when in fact more options are available. Reducing a complex situation to an alternative between two options enables Manichaeism (black and white thinking) in which one option can be demonized, leaving only one possible choice.

  • The scapegoat

    Scapegoating involves blaming a person or group or placing undue responsibility on them for a particular problem.

  • The ad hominem attack

    An attack ad hominem is to attack the person making an argument, instead of attacking the argument itself. These attacks are generally used to divert attention from the current subject. They can be, but need not be, misleading, as in some cases the credibility of the messenger is relevant to the argument in question.

In six randomized studies conducted with a total of 6464 participants and one “ecologically valid” field study on YouTube conducted with 22,632 participants, these videos improved recognition of manipulation techniques, built confidence in spotting these techniques, increased ability to discern trustworthy content from untrustworthy content, and improved the quality of sharing decisions across networks.

The inoculation effect was consistent between liberals and conservatives. It worked for people with different levels of education and different personality types. This is a general inoculation against misinformation“, conclude the researchers. “We show that psychological inoculation campaigns on social media are effective in improving resistance to disinformation at scale.»

Misinformation is almost always created using the same techniques, points out Stephan Lewandowsky.

The inoculation videos used in this study can be viewed, in English, on the websiteInoculation Science.

Google was preparing, in August, to deploy an anti-disinformation campaign based on these results, according to the press release from the University of Cambridge.

For more information on disinformation, see the links below.

(1) Sander van der Linden, Beth Goldberg, Steve Rathje and Stephan Lewandowsk.

Illustration – Credit: Inoculation Science.

Psychomedia with sources: Science Advances, University of Cambridge, , Inoculation Science.
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