How To Inoculate Yourself Against Fake News, According To Science

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Fake news has become both the rallying cry and chief weapon of the current administration, challenging how we consume and vet information. The question of how to inoculate yourself against fake news without giving up social media all together in this political climate seems impossible, but a group of psychologists may have hit on a "vaccine" to fight the growing spread of misinformation. (When I said "inoculate," I really did mean inoculate.)

According to the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of adult Americans get their news from social media, and a fifth of Americans rely on these sites as their primary source. Without a sufficient vetting system in place, false claims — or "alternative facts," as the case may be — can infiltrate and spread through social media like a virus.

A recent study published in the journal Global Challenges, however, suggests not only that we can immunize ourselves to false content, but moreover, that how we do it should be approached in much the same way as how we teach our bodies to fight infection. That's right: We can do it through inoculation — exposing ourselves to a weakened version of the contagion to raise our defenses to the real thing.

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In the study, researchers from Yale, Cambridge, and George Mason Universities found that the veracity of the news made no difference if the "facts" appeared believable. When a group of participants were presented with a persuasive piece of fake news stating that 31,000 scientists agreed that climate change was not man-made, without any other information or context, being exposed to the fake "fact" (i.e. lie) made the participants 9 percent more likely to change their views to coincide with those propagated by the fake news.

Another group shown the widely agreed-upon statistic that “97 percent of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening” in the form of a pie chart changed their opinion in favor of climate change, while respondents exposed to both pieces of news side-by-side didn't change their previously-held beliefs.

To attempt to fight the false claims, a group was shown the pie chart evidence with a statement reading, "Some politically motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists." The psychologists found that "preemptively warning people about politically motivated attempts to spread misinformation helps promote and protect ('inoculate') public attitudes about the scientific consensus." When people were additionally provided with information directly debunking the false claims, they changed their opinions in favor of climate change.

So how do we use these findings to actively prevent fake news from entering our systems? Check out the steps bellow to protect yourself against being hoodwinked by another case of "alternative facts."

1Preemptively Identify A Claim You Believe May Be False

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The next story you come across on Facebook with a provocative headline or shocking image, identify it as possible fake news. You can verify this by looking into the author's credentials and the site the story has originated from. You can also run a search on popular fake news claims to expose yourself to the type of lies floating about on the interwebs. Being able to spot the difference between something attempting to mislead readers, and something meant to inform readers is the first step.

2Understand That Your Identified Piece Of False News May Be Preying On Your Biases

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"Confirmation bias leads people to put more stock in information that confirms their beliefs and discount information that doesn’t," writes FactCheck.org, and in this heated political climate, it's more important than ever to examine your own biases. Preface reading false news with the understanding that, Democrat or Republican, you are more likely to take a "facts" at face value if they coincide with your previously-held beliefs. Remember that just because the story tells you something you want to hear, doesn't make it true.  

3Investigate And Read Proven Research About This Piece Of False News

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Before reading the fake news article, do a little research on the topic to weaken the misleading affect of these "viral rumors." Fact checking sites like Politifact and FactCheck.org can be incredibly useful for these situations; they can point you in the direction of research either supporting or denying the claim. In the case of scientific research, peer-reviewed studies are key.

4Expose Yourself To The False News (But Not Too Much)

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For the final step, you must expose yourself to the contagion to fight the greater virus. Go ahead and read that fake news story now that you have all the tools to weaken its affect — just, please, don't share it in a Facebook post.