By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 13/08/2020


As New Zealand holds its breath waiting to find out the extent of the latest cases of COVID-19 community transmission, it’s hard to avoid the growing amount of mis- and dis-information online.

It’s a very natural instinct to want to debunk this misinformation, but unfortunately, science communication theory shows that not only does this not work, it can be harmful.

The go-to text on this topic is The Debunking Handbook, freely available online from Australian experts John Cook and Stephen Lewandowsky. It’s very readable and easy-to-understand, but I thought it might also be useful to highlight and emphasise some of those key points.

Interested readers may like to take a look at the related full academic article.

Avoid repeating the myth

When we hear something often, it starts feeling familiar to us and can trigger the so-called ‘familiarity bias’; that is, things that feel familiar are more likely to also feel ‘true’. The reason this is important is that if – in the process of debunking a myth – we make that myth feel familiar, it can boost people’s inclination to believe it.

It’s also important to note that by repeating or sharing these myths during the debunking process, you can launder this misinformation into other audiences’ awareness. (Hat tip to The Workshop for the term ‘laundering’ in this context – get their COVID-19 communication guide here.)

So yes, those of us who watched yesterday’s National Party press conference heard the statements made by the deputy leader, but then that was laundered into the social media feeds of many people who likely didn’t hear the original comments. A wider audience was exposed to that misinformation precisely through the debunking and frustration that people were showing – a natural response, but not a terribly helpful one.

Of course, there is a strong case to be made that the deputy leader of the opposition should be held to account for these comments. Something to bear in mind is to provide a ‘pre-exposure warning’ – basically to warn your audience that misinformation is coming. There’s some evidence that stimulating scepticism – for instance, by raising doubts about the motivations of the source of the misinformation – can trigger us to consider information differently, more sceptically, rather than relying on our usual mental short-cuts for making sense of information.

“Don’t expect to counter the firehose of falsehood with the squirt gun of truth.”

Don’t go overboard

Repeating the myth can trigger the so-called ‘familiarity bias’, but on the other hand, going overboard refuting said myth can lead to the ‘overkill backfire effect’. Think of the famous line from Hamlet:
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks”

Both repeated retractions and overly complicated explanations make us less likely to believe the alternative that you’re providing. If you are going to be successful in replacing the misinformation, you have to provide an alternative explanation: it’s not enough to say that something isn’t true. That simply leaves your audience thinking “well what’s the story, then?”

Your alternative needs to be plausible and explain what happened, but not in an overly complicated way that will lead to the ‘backfire’ effect. From The Debunking Handbook:

“The solution is to keep your content lean, mean and easy to read. Making your content easy to process means using every tool available. Use simple language, short sentences, subheadings and paragraphs. Avoid dramatic language and derogatory comments that alienate people. Stick to the facts.”

This week the media has found itself between a rock and a hard place: it is expected to report on what politicians say and let’s face it, if the opposition wasn’t being covered by the media then that would simply fuel further conspiracies. But on the other hand, with so few ‘gatekeepers’ for information on the internet, we need our media outlets to cover the news in a balanced and non-sensational manner.

If I could make one plea, it would be that we stop and think before amplifying the voices of a conspiratorial minority – after all, what does it achieve except to give them the airtime they are gunning for? And please stop hate sharing misinformation on social media, it isn’t helping.

Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash