From the benign to the catastrophic, misinformation can spread like a virus and has infected almost every major area of concern throughout human history. While the spread of misinformation isn’t a novel problem, it is one that has been grossly exacerbated by social media and the internet. Sometimes this manifests as relatively harmless myths like the false belief that physicists can’t explain how bumblebees fly, but too often misinformation directly impacts important subjects in a negative way, such as climate change or, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.
It can feel daunting when you see the number of people who may believe false information, but it raises an important question. Why does misinformation stick so well, and what can be done about it? Fortunately, many scientists, experts, and industry leaders are uniquely qualified to voice the correct information and help stem the tide of misinformation’s flow. To that end there has been a lot of research in the last few decades examining how misinformation spreads and the best practices for fighting or debunking a misleading belief or myth. While there is a lot to consider when trying to debunk a piece of misinformation, the process can be broken up into three steps based on the current best practices handbook released by George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication: assessment, inoculation, and debunking.
Assessment: Who is it for and is it worth your time?
Myths and misinformation come in all shapes and sizes, from disinformation to outdated information or from seemingly harmless to incredibly damaging. It is worth mentioning that misinformation can also be incredibly sticky. Even if an individual or group is convinced of the truth after a correction, they may still find their actions influenced by the initial false information. As such, it is important to debunk often and effectively. However, not all myths are created equal. It is up to the communicator to decide if any given myth is worth the time and effort to debunk. Sometimes it can be better to direct your energy in more effective ways by ignoring less harmful myths in favor of the more dangerous ones.
Once you've decided to debunk a piece of misinformation, there is a simple rule to follow: debunk often and properly.
Additionally, it is incredibly important to consider the audience you are communicating to. When debunking or presenting the truth, the communicator must be seen as a credible source. This could mean that a specific communicator shouldn’t try to debunk a myth to certain communities. As a general rule, it is best to have the communicator be a member that is trusted within the community. It is also critical to engage in active listening with individuals or groups that believe a piece of misinformation. Understanding the audience is the first step to building any communication piece; making sure that your audience feels heard and validated goes a long way to helping them build trust in the communicator’s credibility.
Inoculate: A vaccine against fake news
Misinformation can be incredibly difficult to uproot once it has taken hold. This stickiness can be frustrating when trying to debunk a myth and, consequently, it can be best to avoid debunking altogether by instead inoculating the target audience. Much like when vaccinating someone against a virus, misinformation inoculation, also called “prebunking,” is when communicators warn the audience that they might be misinformed about certain subjects and pre-emptively refute possible myths or logical fallacies. Recent research has examined the benefits of inoculation and it has been shown to be incredibly effective. Prebunking can even help defend audiences against similar misinformation spreading tactics. A 2017 study showed that individuals were more resistant to misleading arguments involving “fake experts” with regards to climate change after those individuals had been shown how fake experts had been used in a similar way to spread misinformation about tobacco in the 1960s.
While prebunking is highly effective, it is not always easy to predict what may or may not spread as misinformation within a community or audience. As such, it is important not to exclusively rely on the inoculation method, as you may not be able to keep a myth from spreading. In this case, the communicator can use a different technique: debunking.
Debunking: Strategically extricating a myth
A point of concern whenever one attempts to debunk a myth is that, by necessity, the communicator must point to and, inadvertently, increase the familiarity of the myth itself. While current research has shown this raised familiarity does little damage when correcting misinformation, it does force the communicator to focus on talking points that were created by someone else. If these talking points, or rhetorical frames, are still in their infancy, it may behoove the communicator to simply focus on spreading the correct information that contradicts the myth. This allows the communicator to build off their own talking points rather than someone else’s. Should the framing be fixed, however, then the communicator needs to focus on debunking the myth.
When debunking or presenting the truth, the communicator must be seen as a credible source.
Once you’ve decided to debunk a piece of misinformation, there is a simple rule to follow: debunk often and properly. The best practice for debunking relies on four components. It is not enough to simply question a piece of information or mark a source as untrustworthy. To debunk successfully the communicator should instead:
- Lead with a clear, pithy fact that both counters the misinformation and is presented in a simple, memorable way. Including an analogy and making sure the fact is concrete and plausible also helps.
- Present and warn about the myth in question. It is critical that you highlight in advance that misinformation is coming and that you mention the myth only once.
- Explain the fallacy of the myth, i.e., how this myth is misleading. Does it take advantage of logical fallacies? Misunderstandings around the scientific method? Faulty or out of date information? Recycling the previously used analogy in the earlier step can be helpful to create a narrative through line that will increase understanding, interest, and memory.
- Finally, finish by reinforcing the initially stated fact—multiple times if possible—and make sure you have presented an alternate causal explanation.
Following this method of fact, warn about the myth, explain the fallacy, fact, is the most concise and effective way to remove a sticky myth. It is also important to avoid technical language or jargon and make sure that the information you are providing is presented in the most comprehensible way possible. The truth can often be much more complex than viral misinformation, so the communicator needs to invest time and effort into translating the correct ideas to be as accessible as possible. Making use of visual aids can also be a great benefit.
Assess, inoculate, debunk
By being attentive, effectively assessing the myth and the audience, and settling on either inoculation or debunking, we are all capable of helping combat the waves of misinformation and half-truths that spread throughout our society. Removing or correcting a myth is challenging and can be disheartening at times, but by sticking to and clearly communicating the truth, most audiences come to accept the facts of a situation. As the influence of social media and the internet continues to grow, the need for stalwart defenders of the truth also grows. Fortunately, the sword cuts both ways. Just as it is easier now to spread misinformation, it has also become easier than ever to spread the truth.