This election year, fighting misinformation is messier and more important than ever (1)

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During the U.S. presidential election in 2016, “fake news” was the phrase on everyone’s lips. Two election cycles later, the threat of misinformation has only become more insidious. “We haven’t seen anything like this in our postwar modern political reality,” said Howard Lavine, PhD, a political psychologist at the University of Minnesota who studies the psychology of mass political behavior. “Misinformation in politics is one of the most difficult problems to crack.”
Despite the challenge, psychologists are pushing back against the threat of misinformation by studying its spread and sharing psychological science with the public. It’s not easy. Internet trolls, online harassment, and the growing threat of legal action make speaking out against misinformation increasingly fraught. But experts say standing up for the truth can make an impact—and the more psychologists who get involved, the bigger that impact can be.
“As scientists, our job is to fill the world with more knowledge. To do that we need to communicate to people and not just to each other,” said Gordon Pennycook, PhD, a psychologist who studies misinformation at Cornell University. “Individually, we may all play a small role. But we shouldn’t underestimate our collective role in improving the information ecosystem,” he added. “If we aren’t each doing our best to get good information out there, misinformation is going to win.”

Pushing back against misinformation

In many ways, communicating with the public is easier than ever. Whether you prefer YouTube, podcasts, TED Talks, blogs, or social sites like TikTok or Blue Sky, there’s no shortage of ways to put your message out there. “With social media, there has been a radical change in how we share science even compared to 10 years ago,” says Jay Van Bavel, PhD, a professor of psychology and neural sciences at New York University. “We have more of a voice than ever, and there is a thirst for it from the public.”
While the rise of social media has made communication easier, it has also fueled the spread of false and misleading information—about everything from climate change to election integrity to the very shape of the planet we stand on. Social media typically lacks the oversight and safeguards of legacy media to prevent and correct false claims. Its algorithms and peer-to-peer sharing model are a perfect setup for misinformation to be shared widely, especially within the echo chambers that form online.
The more people hear those falsehoods, researchers have found, the more likely they are to believe them—even if the information contradicts their prior beliefs (Fazio, L. K., et al., Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol. 144, No. 5, 2015). During the 2020 presidential election, false claims about election fraud were rampant. Three days after Joe Biden was declared the winner, Pennycook and MIT researcher David Rand, PhD, found a majority of Trump voters falsely believed that Trump was the rightful victor. Those beliefs were more common among people who followed election news closely (Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2021). Such findings suggest it’s important to nip misinformation in the bud before people have been exposed to it multiple times.
Research also points toward some best practices for setting the record straight. Fact-checking, or debunking false claims, can be effective. But there is a right way to approach it, Van Bavel said. Debunking is most effective when you can explain why the information is false and provide alternative information (van der Meer, T. G. L. A., & Jin, Y., Health Communication, Vol. 35, No. 5, 2020). Sharing misinformation to call it out could inadvertently drive traffic to the person spreading the false claim. A better way is to screenshot the incorrect statement and share it with a clear explanation of facts and a link to an original expert source. “The way algorithms work, fact-checking in the wrong ways accidentally amplifies misinformation,” Van Bavel said.
Speaking of Psychology
Stopping the spread of misinformation, with Sander van der Linden, PhD
00:00:00 / 00:40:06

Building trust

Fostering trust with your audience is another important facet of science communication. In a study that spanned five countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, Sander van der Linden, PhD, a social psychologist at Cambridge University, and colleagues showed that higher trust in scientists was correlated with reduced belief in Covid-19 misinformation (Royal Society Open Science, Vol. 7, No. 10, 2020).
Unfortunately, trust in politics is particularly lacking—and that’s no accident, Lavine said. A common tactic of modern politics is to demonize and dehumanize the opponent, he explained. “In that space, [false or misleading] statements from partisan elites become more credible. Once you’ve dehumanized the other side, misinformation and conspiracy theories that would seem bizarre now become believable.” And scientists have become a frequent target for those attacks. Yet all hope is not lost. One way psychologists can engender trust is by staying in their lane, van der Linden said. As a misinformation researcher, he publicly admits he’s not the expert on virology or climatology, so he doesn’t debate the fine points of false claims about Covid-19 or climate change. Instead, he focuses his attention on discussing the psychological processes that make people fall prey to misinformation.
“People who believe one conspiracy theory are more likely to believe others. So it’s less important to get into the nitty-gritty of whether a specific conspiracy is true or not and more effective to promote the kind of thinking that will help people recognize logical fallacies or manipulation techniques,” van der Linden said. Such techniques include using language that stokes fear or outrage, impersonating a trustworthy individual or organization, exaggerating polarization by using “us vs. them” language, and attacking a person’s character to take attention away from their argument. “As psychologists, we can help people calibrate their judgments and empower them to make up their own minds,” he added.
One way psychologists are doing that is through “prebunking,” interventions designed to inoculate people against misinformation they might encounter in the future. Just as vaccines use weakened pathogens to stimulate the immune system to fight against viruses, prebunking exposes people to weakened versions of persuasive arguments to build their resistance to manipulation and misinformation. Researchers have designed infographics, videos, and even games to help people learn to recognize and resist the persuasion techniques used in misinformation. In one example, van der Linden and colleagues showed that a prebunking game significantly improved participants’ ability to identify misinformation techniques and also increased their confidence in their own judgments (Journal of Cognition, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2020).

The Wild West

Staying focused on psychological science—rather than engaging in political shouting matches online—also helps protect communicators from becoming targets of trolling and harassment (see Protect yourself from online trolls). Unfortunately, online abuse is just one of the risks of speaking out against misinformation. “In some ways, trolls are the easier problem to deal with. The bigger risk now, especially with political misinformation, is that companies and Congress are coming after disinformation researchers,” Van Bavel said.
Over the past year, activists have set their sights on researchers who study misinformation. Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan, chair of the Republican House Judiciary Committee, has accused misinformation researchers of colluding with the government to suppress conservative speech, keeping them busy with a flurry of public records requests and threats of legal action. In May, the advocacy group America First Legal filed a lawsuit against researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory, a program at Stanford University that focuses on misuse of social media. A month later, X (formerly Twitter) filed suit against the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate. “We’re seeing a huge backlash against the very concept of misinformation. So, it’s more prudent than ever to find ways to engage that speak to our strengths as psychologists,” van der Linden said.
Speaking out is difficult but more important than ever. “There’s been a huge chilling effect on researchers speaking out about misinformation. Between trolls and lawsuits, it’s the Wild West out there,” van der Linden said. That chilling effect extends to the NIH, which this year halted a planned $150 million program to improve communication of health information, citing legal threats as one factor in the decision. Many institutions are pledging to keep fighting. Stanford University leaders, for example, have spoken publicly in support of their researchers and the work of the Stanford Internet Observatory.
As this presidential election year unfolds, psychologists are uniquely poised to help push back against the flurry of falsehoods, van der Linden said. “Psychologists can help bridge the partisan divide by fighting misinformation in ways that aren’t so polarizing,” such as focusing on decision-making and recognizing manipulation rather than the content of an argument, he added. “Giving people the tools that they need to make better decisions is within our expertise as psychologists.”

Positive communication

Still, it’s possible to communicate scientific findings to the public without diving straight into the deep end of the misinformation pool. Indeed, there are good reasons to put yourself out there. “People might not appreciate the benefits that come from speaking with the public. When you discuss your work more broadly, it can motivate the research and help you learn things you wouldn’t otherwise,” Pennycook said.
Communicating with the public isn’t something that psychology training programs tend to explicitly teach. But, Van Bavel said, “public communication is a skill. And anyone can work on it to improve that skill.”
Meanwhile, the field of psychology would benefit from more people studying misinformation, Pennycook and van der Linden said. Researchers studying intergroup relations, persuasion, belief formation, communication, health behaviors, and any number of other topics can all contribute to the study of how misinformation spreads, why people believe it, and how best to counter it.
“Misinformation poses huge risks to democracy and public health, so if you can find ways in which your research can be applied to elucidate these important questions, why not give it a go?” van der Linden said. “From basic questions about how the brain processes information and why we believe things to intervention research to counter misinformation, psychologists are really well positioned to come up with solutions.”

APA report fights back against misinformation

What can be done to stop misinformation in its tracks? A task force of psychological scientists tackled that question in a new APA consensus statement, Using Psychological Science to Understand and Fight Health Misinformation. Developed with support from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the report describes the latest science and provides recommendations to help scientists, policymakers, media, and the public address misinformation. It provides a blueprint for clinicians engaging in delicate conversations with patients, and a foundation for researchers working to identify the causes of, and solutions for, the epidemic of misinformation.