What to do when faced with misinformation or ‘fake news’?
This blog is an unplanned sequel to the article I recently published about How to avoid accidentally spreading ‘fake news’ when sharing links on SAP Community. This follow-up post was prompted by a comment from Bernhard Luecke who wondered about “what now?” after reading my earlier article.
The implied suggestion in the other post is to avoid spreading misinformation or fake news by making a deliberate decision to not share a link to an article when you are not sure – after some fact-checking – about its credibility. If nobody shared fake news it couldn’t spread like a virus after all. But, as Bernhard mentioned, there are times when you want to respond or when you want to make others aware of the questionable nature of an article. So, how could you do that without – by just mentioning or linking to the article – spreading it further?
Caveat: I’m not an expert in fake news and how to combat that, but I’ve picked up a few things through my involvement with Skeptical Science, a website devoted to debunking misinformation (aka ‘fake news’) about human-caused climate change. I wrote about this non-SAP-related part of my activities in a coffee corner thread. So, what I’m going to mention below is based on a science issue, where you can apply the scientific method and where you have peer review to assess research results before they get published. A lot of stuff which gets shared far and wide on the internet is not about “hard” science but about topics where personal views and values play a large role and where there’s not necessarily a correct answer, just one which perhaps has more percieved advantages than disadvantages. Therefore, not all the pointers will apply to all the potential fake news you happen upon, but it should help for anything where there are for example hard numbers to back up and verify claims or where the correct answer is in fact known.
How to respond
To begin with, decide who you are writing for. If you get the impression that whoever spread the misinformation did so knowingly and on purpose, than it might be pointless to try and respond directly. It might then be a lot more effective to write a comment for all the others reading along who are perhaps not even getting involved in the exchange.
Credit: John Cook
What I usually try to do when I wade into comment threads is to use the misinformation as a hook to share some actual facts about the science and to also explain why the misinformation is misleading. This has the potential to inoculate people not just against the particular misconception but also against others employing the same method to mislead.
When science gets denied five main techniques have been identified regardless of wether the topic area under discussion is human-caused climate change, evolution or smoking to just name three “popular” ones.
- Fake experts are people who convey the appearance of expertise without pocessing any actual expertise (you know, like the doctors from the 70s who preferred smoking “Camels” to any other brand).
- Logical fallacies are false argumnts leading to invalid conclusions (here’s a neat list)
- Impossible expectations demand unrealistic standards of proof before acting on the science.
- Cherry picking involves focusing on select pieces of data while ignoring anything conflicting with the desired conclusion.
- Conspiracy theories are created when science deniers accuse the world’s scientists of a massive, global conspiracy.
These techniques can be summarised with the acronym FLICC. But perhaps, a cartoon is even more helpful (or at least adds some fun!):
Credit: John Cook – crankyuncles.com
What to be aware of in your response
As mentioned in my response to Bernhard one thing in particular to keep in mind is what’s called the “familiarity backfire effect”. This can occur when people are not paying enough attention to what they read or hear and even though this is not quite as strong as thought earlier it doesn’t hurt to avoid it regardless.The best way to do this is to always start with the factual information and thereby put the focus on what is right instead of what is wrong.
It’s often important to mention the misinformation somehow and the recommendation is then to preceed the mention with an explicit warning like “There’s some misinformation making the rounds which states …. but this is wrong because …”.
A good place to start looking into backfire effects is The Debunking Handbook which explains these things based on climate science and how to counter the misinformation about it. You can find it on Skeptical Science (you’ll also find links to the updates on the familiarity backfire effect there).
If you like to have a kind of schema for debunking misinformation, the Fact – Myth – Fallacy structure might be helpful.
Some more tips and resources
If you don’t want to give a questionable article additional exposure or link-clicks, you can mask the target URL, by generating an archive link for the article (if the website doesn’t block this). So, for the Brightworkresearch article which prompted the initial blog post you could first go to archive today, drop the URL into the red box, wait a bit until the archive is created and then share the generated short link instead: https://archive.is/QsNLZ.
In case you’d like to dig deeper into this topic, here are a few links which might be of interest:
Discussing climate change on the net – a blog post I published on Skeptical Science in 2018
Inoculation theory: Using misinformation to fight misinformation – an article John Cook published in The Conversation in 2017
Pre-recording of EGU-Presention – Youtube version of a 10 minute presentation about debunking misinformation I had created in preparation for a conference
Denial101x – Making sense of climate science denial – a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) about the basics of climate science, howy the get distorted and what to do about it
The Fact-Myth-Fallacy slide deck – a powerpoint presentation consisting of 40 slides, each with a short debunking of a climate-related myth utlising the debunking structure mentioned above
As this post can admittedly be judged as at the very least borderline off-topic for SAP Community – even if posted under “Personal insights” – I’d be interested in your feedback about this type of more general topic to write about every once in a while. But, I’m of course also interested in your thoughts about “FLICC” and the “Fact-Myth-Fallacy” structure. Do you remember any occasion where either of the two would have come in handy, or can you think of instances where they could actually be applied in a SAP-context?