Tired of seeing misinformation online? Here’s one strategy to stop it

PHILADELPHIA — If you’re on social media, chances are you’ve come across a post that is full of misinformation. Whether it’s about politics, vaccines, or another issue, you might feel the temptation to argue with the poster and show them the errors of their ways. However, new research shows that debunking the misinformation might not be the best approach. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania say a less confrontational but effective way is diverting their attention away from misinformation and onto other beliefs.

Bypassing misinformation involves finding a conclusion and coming up with ways to support the conclusion with accurate information that does not directly refute a person’s claims. For example, if you’re trying to debunk misinformation about vaccines causing more harm than good, you would want to cite examples of different vaccines and how they helped reduce the number of deaths among kids or stopped polio from becoming endemic in all but two countries. The information can help people come to their own conclusions that vaccines have value, rather than flat-out telling someone they’re wrong or bombarding them with figures and studies.

“A fear that vaccines cause autism might be one belief that shapes a person’s attitude toward vaccines,” says Dolores Albarracín, a social psychologist and professor at Penn, in a university release. “But humans hold many beliefs at once. Bringing attention to positive ones can change people’s minds.”

Women upset, arguing
(© Antonioguillem – stock.adobe.com)

The bypassing misinformation strategy works because it avoids arguments from others who feel attacked or belittled for sharing their views. Starting an online fight can be a memorable event and you may run the risk of cementing the misinformation into people’s memories.

Albarracín and her colleagues ran three experiments to test the effectiveness of the bypassing strategy compared to correcting someone’s misleading posts. In the first two experiments, participants read an article that falsely claimed that a newly-developed, genetically modified (GM) corn product causes severe allergic reactions.

Some people then read an article debunking the previous story through facts and alternate explanations — a correction strategy towards misinformation. Others read an article highlighting the positive benefits of GM foods from their help in saving the bees and ending global hunger — a bypassing misinformation approach.

The control group was people who did not receive a second article or had a second article about an unrelated subject. A third experiment used a different misinformation article that argued genetically modified corn increases tumor growth in rats.

Throughout each experiment, the authors measured people’s attitudes toward policies restricting the manufacturing of GM foods and whether they support the changes. Both the bypassing and correction strategies led to less support for food restrictions. This suggests both methods made misinformation less convincing and people more cautious of claims that genetically modified food causes allergies.

At a time when people can get information online in seconds, people might feel a social responsibility to stop harmful and damaging misinformation. The bypassing strategy will help people reach the right facts.

“There’s this perceived pressure to go out and debunk misinformation, but we can also strengthen other beliefs and consider misinformation within the wider system of beliefs people hold,” Albarracín says. “Bypassing allows you to work from the point of view of what conclusion you want — highlighting beliefs that support it instead of focusing solely on contradicting the misinformation.”

The study is published in Scientific Reports.

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