Psychological "Vaccines" Can Help Inoculate The Public Against Fake News

All is not lost. 

5 DEC 2017

Fake news. It's all anyone seems to be able to talk about it. Thanks to the internet and the echo chambers of social media, the rise and spread of misinformation in our day and age is unprecedented.


Obviously, this has important implications for scientific literacy. Misinformation is seriously threatening the ability of the public to form evidence-based opinions on important scientific issues, like climate change and public health.

But just like a weakened virus in a vaccine, recent studies suggest misinformation can be used against itself.

A growing body of research suggests warning people about misleading tactics and exposing them to weakened versions of misinformation can help inoculate the public against "fake news."

The idea is called inoculation theory, and a recent study describes the underlying logic best:

"Just as a small dose of vaccine activates the body's immune system to protect against an infectious disease, so message inoculation can help protect the mind against the effects of disinformation," the study concludes.

In other words, by presenting false claims and then refuting potential counterarguments, researchers can develop cognitive resistance against scientific falsehoods.

Fact-checking is too little, too late

When asked to come up with a way to combat misinformation, most people will suggest more fact-checking. But according to recent research, fact-checking is often too little, too late.

That's because once a "fact" – no matter how truthful - has been planted in an individual's mind, it's very hard to get rid of.


Research has shown even when a "fact" has been debunked or discredited, the idea continues to influence an individual's understanding and reasoning. This is called the continued influence effect, and it suggests that correcting false information after it is disseminated is often pointless.

Instead, the research suggests we need to nip scientific misunderstanding in the bud. Rather than just telling people the correct information, when researchers expose the deceptive tactics used to sow distrust in science, the results are far more promising.

For instance, in one Australian study, researchers began by explaining a climate fact. So: "human emissions are primarily responsible for the rise in CO2 emissions over the past two centuries." The researchers then introduced a related myth to that fact: "volcanoes produce more CO2 than humans." Lastly, the researchers explained the fallacy behind the myth: "the amount of CO2 volcanoes produce is too small to account for the observed changes."

The findings of the study suggest revealing the Fact-Myth-Fallacy structure successfully inoculates students against scientific myths.

climate change factDenial101x lectures adhering to Fact-Myth-Fallacy structure.

Understanding scientific consensus

Exposing the Fact-Myth-Fallacy structure isn't the only way we can inoculate the public against science denial. Further research has suggested exposing people to one key fact can improve public acceptance of climate change.

Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus, Americans have become increasingly polarized on the issue of climate change - in large part, because of disinformation campaigns and the politicization of science.


In a recent Gallup poll, only 71 percent of respondents say most scientists believe global warming is occurring, and only 68 percent believe global warming is caused by human activities.

But all is not lost. 

A series of experiments have found simply informing people that 97 percent of climate scientists are convinced human-caused global warming is happening, significantly increases public understanding of the consensus - regardless of political affiliation.

inocResponse to misinformation about climate change. Cook et al. (2017), CC BY-ND

Prior research has even shown understanding scientific consensus is an effective '"gateway" for public acceptance of climate change. In fact, understanding scientific consensus is associated with small increases in a person's conviction that climate change is happening, is human-caused, and is a worrying threat that requires immediate action.

The body of research suggests communicating the degree of scientific agreement can help neutralize the public's polarizing views on climate change.

And while the research is still young and scientists are not sure whether it can be applied successfully in the real world, the results are promising.

Inoculation against scientific misinformation has the ability to spread online and through word-of-mouth, just like "fake news." If news outlets and the public can help inoculate each other, researchers are hopful we can achieve societal immunity against misinformation.

Who knows, maybe one day the percentage of Americans who accept human-caused climate change might even reflect the scientific consensus.