This blog post, written by Dr. Terry Flynn and Tim Li, is based on a research paper by Ullrich K. H. Ecker, Ph.D., Ziggy O’Reilly, Jesse S. Reid, Ee Pin Chang, of University of Western Australia.

Key findings

  • Both simple retractions of falsehood and short factual refutations reduce belief in false claims, but detailed refutations are more effective as time goes on as they are generally less likely to be forgotten.
  • There was no evidence that simple retractions, which repeat false claims and identifies them as false, result in increased belief in the misinformation.

Implications for Public Relations

This study’s findings are especially relevant for organizations and professionals looking to tackle misinformation on social media. Even short-form refutations, such as Tweet, are effective for reducing beliefs in false claims. By going beyond a simple statement that a claim is false and providing a little extra detail, the correction will have a longer lasting impact. Although simple retractions appear mostly safe to use and effective in the short term, strategies should focus elaborating on the relevant facts. It is as important to emphasize what information is true, as it is to identify what is false or misleading.

Summary

Fact checking can take various forms, from simple warnings to detailed refutations. Some previous research has warned against using simple statements that a claim was false, suggesting that the repetition of the misinformation reinforces people’s familiarity with it and subsequently their belief in it. Detailed refutations are thought to be more effective because they provide more information and context to help people update their beliefs. However, this can be difficult to do when space or time is limited.

Ecker and colleagues investigated the efficacy of simple retractions and whether a short additional elaboration would be more effective. They showed participants various claims in the form of mock Tweets and then refutations as either a simple “true” or “false” tag, or a refutation that identifies the inaccurate information and provides the correct facts. Participants were tested either a day or a week later to evaluate if their belief in the claims had changed and examine how they used the information to make inferences about a situation.

The results demonstrated that both the simple retractions and short refutations were equally effective at reducing belief in misinformation after a one-day delay, but the short refutations were more effective after one week. These findings suggest that the memory of simple retractions degrade while the familiarity of misleading claims may persist. Refutations, on the other hand, provide more information and detail, increasing the opportunity for accurate recall.

People who only saw a retracted or refuted claim and not the misinformation before were not more likely to believe in false claims, suggesting that corrections will not accidentally lead to misperceptions by exposing naive audiences to the claims. There was also no evidence that exposure to either approaches led to increased belief in the misinformation.

Blog post compiled by Dr. Terry Flynn and Tim Li of McMaster University.

Citation

Ecker, Ullrich K. H., O’Reilly, Ziggy, Reid, Jesse S., & Chang, Ee Pin. (2019). The effectiveness of short‐format refutational fact‐checks. British Journal of Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjop.12383

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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