23.2 C
New York
Wednesday, July 24, 2024

This Psychologist Wants To Vaccinate You Against Fake News

For Sander van der Linden, misinformation is personal.

As a child in the Netherlands, the University of Cambridge social psychologist discovered that almost all of his mother’s family had been executed by the Nazis during the Second World War. He became absorbed by the question of how so many people came to support the ideas of someone like Adolf Hitler, and how they might be taught to resist such influence.

While studying psychology at graduate school in the mid-2010s, van der Linden came across the work of American researcher William McGuire. In the 1960s, stories of brainwashed prisoners-of-war during the Korean War had captured the zeitgeist, and McGuire developed a theory of how such indoctrination might be prevented. He wondered whether exposing soldiers to a weaker form of propaganda might have equipped them to fight off a full attack once they’d been captured. In the same way that army drills prepared them for combat, a pre-exposure to an attack on their beliefs could have prepared them against mind control. It would work, McGuire argued, as a cognitive immunizing agent against propaganda—a vaccine against brainwashing.

Traditional vaccines protect us by feeding us a weaker dose of pathogen, enabling our bodies’ immune defenses to take note of its appearance so we’re better equipped to fight the real thing when we encounter it. A psychological vaccine works much the same way: Give the brain a weakened hit of a misinformation-shaped virus, and the next time it encounters it in fully-fledged form, its “mental antibodies” remember it and can launch a defense.

Van der Linden wanted to build on McGuire’s theories and test the idea of psychological inoculation in the real world. His first study looked at how to combat climate change misinformation. At the time, a bogus petition was circulating on Facebook claiming there wasn’t enough scientific evidence to conclude that global warming was human-made, and boasting the signatures of 30,000 American scientists (on closer inspection, fake signatories included Geri Halliwell and the cast of M*A*S*H).Van der Linden and his team took a group of participants and warned them that there were politically motivated actors trying to deceive them—the phony petition in this case. Then they gave them a detailed takedown of the claims of the petition; they pointed out, for example, Geri Halliwell’s appearance on the list. When the participants were later exposed to the petition, van der Linden and his group found that people knew not to believe it.

The approach hinges on the idea that by the time we’ve been exposed to misinformation, it’s too late for debunking and fact-checking to have any meaningful effect, so you have to prepare people in advance—what van der Linden calls “prebunking.” An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

When he published the findings in 2016, van der Linden hadn’t anticipated that his work would be landing in the era of Donald Trump’s election, fake news, and post-truth; attention on his research from the media and governments exploded. Everyone wanted to know, how do you scale this up?

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

Van der Linden worked with game developers to create an online choose-your-own-adventure game called Bad News, where players can try their hand at writing and spreading misinformation. Much like a broadly protective vaccine, if you show people the tactics used to spread fake news, it fortifies their inbuilt bullshit detectors.

But social media companies were still hesitant to get on board; correcting misinformation and being the arbiters of truth is not part of their core business model. Then people in China started getting sick with a mysterious flulike illness.

The coronavirus pandemic propelled the threat of misinformation to dizzying new heights. Van der Linden began working with the British government and bodies like the World Health Organization and the United Nations to create a more streamlined version of the game specifically revolving around Covid, which they called GoViral! They created more versions, including one for the 2020 US presidential election, and another to prevent extremist recruitment in the Middle East. Slowly, Silicon Valley came around.

A collaboration with Google has resulted in a campaign on YouTube in which the platform plays clips in the ad section before the video starts, warning viewers about misinformation tropes like scapegoating and false dichotomies and drawing examples from Family Guy and Star Wars. A study with 20,000 participants found that people who viewed the ads were better able to spot manipulation tactics; the feature is now being rolled out to hundreds of millions of people in Europe.

Van der Linden understands that working with social media companies, who have historically been reluctant to censor disinformation, is a double-edged sword. But, at the same time, they’re the de facto guardians of the online flow of information, he says, “and so if we’re going to scale the solution, we need their cooperation.” (A downside is that they often work in unpredictable ways. Elon Musk fired the entire team who was working on pre-bunking at Twitter when he became CEO, for instance.)

This year, van der Linden wrote a book on his research, titled Foolproof: Why We Fall for Misinformation and How to Build Immunity. Ultimately, he hopes this isn’t a tool that stays under the thumb of third-party companies; his dream is for people to inoculate one another. It could go like this: You see a false narrative gaining traction on social media, you then warn your parents or your neighbor about it, and they’ll be pre-bunked when they encounter it. “This should be a tool that’s for the people, by the people,” van der Linden says.

This article first appeared in the September/October 2023 edition of WIRED UK.

Related Articles

Latest Articles