The world is being flooded with internet-driven misinformation, but there are ways to counter fake news with the facts, a new report says.

These include aggressive fact-checking, preemptively debunking lies before they take root and nudging people to be more skeptical before sharing information, the American Psychological Association analysis found.

The product of more than a year’s work by a panel of international experts, the report explains why anyone is susceptible to misinformation if it’s presented in an enticing way.

For example, a person is more likely to believe misinformation if it comes from an apparently credible source or a group to which they belong, the report revealed. 

People also are more likely to believe false statements if they appeal to powerful emotions like fear or outrage, or if they paint groups viewed as “others” in a negative light.

“’Echo chambers’ bind and isolate online communities with similar views, which aids the spread of falsehoods and impedes the spread of factual corrections,” the report said.

And misinformation is viral – people are more likely to believe it the more it is repeated, even if it contradicts their own personal knowledge.

“It is effortful and difficult for our brains to apply existing knowledge when encountering new information; when new claims are false but sufficiently reasonable, we can learn them as facts,” the report said. “Thus, everyone is susceptible to misinformation to some degree: we acquire it even when we know better.”

Because of this viral nature, experts argue that it’s important to stop misinformation as early as possible.

The report recommends active fact-checking to combat misinformation, but admits that relying on this alone will never allow society to get ahead of the problem.

“Rapid publication and peer-to-peer sharing allow ordinary users to distribute information quickly to large audiences, so misinformation can be policed only after the fact [if at all],” the report said. “Most online misinformation originates from a small minority of ‘superspreaders,’ but social media amplifies their reach and influence.”

That’s why the report also recommends “prebunking,” a technique intended to ward off falsehoods by teaching people how psychological manipulation can make them vulnerable to misinformation.

The report also encourages “nudges” that will promote truth, such as asking people to consider the accuracy of information before sharing it or rewarding people to be as accurate as possible.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention commissioned the report, which is part of a $2 million grant to develop effective counters to COVID vaccine hesitancy.

The report also recommended broader steps for policymakers, scientists, the media and the public to help curb the spread of misinformation. They include:

  • Don’t repeat misinformation unless a correction is included

  • Collaborate with social media companies to research and reduce the spread of viral misinformation

  • Identify trusted sources and use them to counter misinformation and provide accurate facts

  • Debunk misinformation often and repeatedly

  • Inoculate susceptible audiences by “prebunking,” building their media savvy and skepticism from an early age

  • Demand data access and transparency from social media companies for scientific research on misinformation

  • Fund research into the psychology of health misinformation, including better ways to counter it

The report, called “Using Psychological Science to Understand and Fight Health Misinformation: An APA Consensus Statement,” was published Nov. 29.

More information

The Poynter Institute has more about prebunking.

SOURCE: American Psychological Association, news release, Nov. 29, 2023