Using Fact-Checking to Overcome Disinformation
Disinformation is fabricated information spread intentionally to mislead and divide people. And while some individuals or organizations create disinformation, there appears to be no shortage of people willing to believe it and to further propagate these falsehoods within their own spheres of influence.
Presenting facts to counteract disinformation seems to only further entrench the positions of those who believe it. Sometimes, people who accept these falsehoods will even cut off friends who offer contrary but accurate information.
This is how information “echo chambers” form — wherein, according to Technopedia, “certain ideas, beliefs or data points are reinforced through repetition of a closed system that does not allow for the free movement of alternative or competing ideas or concepts.”
Students can fall into disinformation echo chambers too, enabled by social media algorithms that prevent them from hearing facts or ideas that contradict their beliefs.
Confirmation bias breeds disinformation
Why do seemingly intelligent, reasonable, well-educated people fall for disinformation? The answer may be psychological. To paraphrase a definition from the “Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology,” the phenomenon of “cognitive bias” is a systematic pattern in which people deviate from rational judgment.
In the case of believing falsehoods even when presented with contrary evidence, a form of cognitive bias known as “confirmation bias” makes people less likely to consider or embrace alternative ideas. In other words, confirmation bias is the tendency to selectively look for information that is consistent with one’s own beliefs.
According to the website Simply Psychology, confirmation bias occurs “when a person gives more weight to evidence that confirms their beliefs and undervalues evidence that could disprove it.” The effect of such bias “is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.” A blatant example of confirmation bias was evident in the discourse around the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
Here are some ways to counter disinformation and confirmation bias.
Based on recommendations from the U.S. Department of State’s Global Engagement Center, which addresses attempts by foreign adversaries to undermine U.S. interests through disinformation and propaganda, a fact-checking strategy to counter disinformation could include submitting fact-checking requests to media outlets or to third-party fact-checking organizations such as Snopes.com or PolitiFact.com.
Communicators can also dispute information with the social media platform where it’s posted. Facebook, for example, relies heavily on users reporting disinformation. Likewise, Twitter encourages users to report disinformation, especially from public figures.
Another strategy is to partner with third-party organizations that people influenced by disinformation trust, so they will accept the organizations’ fact-checking. Rating scales can also help overcome confirmation bias.
Rather than reject disinformation as categorically false — and by extension, prove wrong those who believe it, making them defensive — we can instead label information as “mostly true” or “mostly false,” followed by an explanation of why.
Before responding to disinformation, it’s a good idea to first assess how widespread the falsehood has become. Responding, even with compelling facts, might backfire by inadvertently spreading marginal disinformation to a larger audience.
Media literacy programs
If a fact-checking strategy is the equivalent of giving someone a fish, then media-literacy programs equate to teaching people how to fish.
As defined by the 1992 Aspen Media Literacy Leadership Institute, media literacy is “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms.” In other words, it means thinking critically about the information we encounter.
Media literacy programs can be customized for different audiences. First Draft, a nonprofit coalition that seeks to counter harmful disinformation, offers a free, online course in English and Spanish to help people understand why disinformation is created and shared. The course also teaches how misinformation spreads, “how to verify images and profiles, and how to talk about this with family and friends.”
Communicators can reinforce media-literacy efforts with ad campaigns on traditional and social media. Quality games are available online to help raise awareness of disinformation, including Go Viral! from the University of Cambridge’s Social Decision-Making Lab, Scripps’ National News Literacy fitness test, Clemson University’s “Spot-the-Troll” quiz and the “Harmony Square” game from Misinformation Review at the Harvard Kennedy School.
To combat disinformation, we must strike a balance between communicating its seriousness and emphasizing techniques to overcome it.
For more in-depth reading on using media literacy to counter disinformation, visit PRSA’s Voices 4 Everyone website at: voices4everyone.prsa.org