What we know about debunking misinformation

Misinformation is everywhere. Never before have people had access to such a huge amount of incorrect information. Of course misinformation can make people make bad decisions and it can tarnish the reputations of people and organisations that have done nothing wrong.

That's why - at least in my opinion - the skill most valued by professional communicators is the ability to counter misinformation and encourage people to accept the truth.

But can you actually counter misinformation, and how can you best do it? There are 52 studies that relate to this question that were recently analysed by Chan et al. (2017). These studies relate to everything from political issues such as whether there are ‘death panels’ in the US Affordable Care Act to the classic studies in this area; the causes of a hypothetical warehouse fire.

The studies were analysed to see to what degree misinformation persists in the face of a debunking effort.

The good news is that debunking efforts are most successful when people were encouraged to “update their mental model” justifying the misinformation, which means providing some logical reasons for the new answer, not just the new answer itself – or just labelling the original answer “wrong”. It is important to replace the old reasoning with the new reasoning to encourage people to accept the new answer (see Johnson-Laird 1994).

The other interesting fact from this meta-analysis is something that surprised the authors but will probably resonate with professional communicators. The more detailed a debunking effort is, the less likely it is to be successful. This makes sense as people who use complicated or long arguments run the risk of not be understood and therefore they will often fail.

As Queen Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

However, it is important to realise that one overriding factor to all of this is that people who strongly believe the misinformation are very hard to persuade, even with short, well-reasoned debunking efforts.

For these cases including more practical tips on debunking misinformation I recommend reading the free Debunking Handbook - an excellent reference produced by Professors John Cook and Stephen Lewandowski.

For everything else, don't repeat the misinformation, keep it short, provide a reason why the misinformation is wrong and keep it simple.

References

  • Chan M-pS, Jones CR, Jamieson KH, et al. (2017) Debunking: A Meta-Analysis of the Psychological Efficacy of Messages Countering Misinformation. Psychological Science 28: 1531-1546.

  • Johnson-Laird PN. (1994) Mental models and probabilistic thinking. Cognition 50: 189-209.**