This summary is presented by the IPR Behavioral Insights Research Center

Key Findings

  • Inoculations are communications that warn about impending misinformation and provide refutations. This strategy equips people with information that can be used to recognize misleading claims and dismiss them.
  • Pre-emptively providing an explanation of misinformation strategies, like the use of fake experts, can provide some protection from being misled.

Implications for Public Relations

Public relations professionals should use inoculation to neutralize misinformation. Warning people about misleading claims and highlighting the inaccuracies and flawed logic behind them can reduce their potential influence.

Correcting misperceptions once they have been established can be difficult. Instead, public relations professionals can pre-emptively tackle misinformation through inoculation. Inoculation warns people about misinformation and debunks it before they get a chance of being misled.

The refutation can explain why a specific claim is false or explain the general strategy being used to mislead the public. The latter may be helpful for addressing multiple similar misleading arguments at once. Public relations professionals should evaluate the broader fallacies and approaches behind the misinformation they are dealing with to inform the development of inoculation messaging. Inoculations need to be implemented quickly because they rely on reaching people before the misinformation does and may be most appropriate for new false claims or new arguments for existing misperceptions.

Attempts to address misinformation are often reactive and correct misperceptions after they have been established. Another strategy is inoculation, which aims to pre-emptively equip people with information to better identify and dismiss misinformation.  Inoculation involves debunking the false claims before people encounter it, so that their first encoding of the misinformation is strongly tied with the notion that it is false and with arguments that can be used to refute it.  The two main elements of an inoculation are explicit warnings that there are attempts to mislead people and refutations of misinformation.

Cook and colleagues examined the potential for neutralizing misinformation about climate change using inoculation. The lack of consensus around anthropogenic climate change is a common misperception that is propagated by media coverage that presents both mainstream scientific views and contrarian views together, a strategy known as the “false balance” strategy. The authors inoculated participants by presenting them with an explanation of this strategy and how it is been used in the past by others like the tobacco industry to create the illusion of a lack of scientific consensus. Participants who received the inoculation were much less influenced by a “false balance” news article about climate change than those that did not.

A second study replicated these findings for a different form of misinformation. The misperception that scientists don’t agree about climate change has also been spread by a disinformation campaign, known as the “Oregon Petition”, that claims many American scientists believe there is no evidence for human made climate change. The petition is highly controversial as it was open to anyone with a science degree, even those without a background in environmental sciences. The inoculation used to address this was an explanation of how fake experts have been used in other instances to mislead the public. The misinformation led participants who weren’t inoculated to have weaker acceptance of anthropogenic climate change.

Prior research has shown that inoculations are effective when they refuting specific claims. In the present studies, the inoculations did not specifically refer to the original misleading statements. Instead, they explained the general strategy that people use to deceive others, demonstrating the effectiveness of generally-framed inoculations. Such inoculations have the potential to address misinformation that uses the same strategy across multiple domains.

Cook, J., Lewandowsky, S., & Ecker, U. K. (2017). Neutralizing misinformation through inoculation: Exposing misleading argumentation techniques reduces their influence. PloS One, 12(5).

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