Are Psychological Inoculations Against Misinformation Likely to be Effective at Scale? A Discussion Between Sander van der Linden and Gordon Pennycook

December 6, 2023
3:00 P.M. ET
Belfer Building – B-200 STARR AUDITORIUM
This event is part of the Speaker Series on Misinformation, co-sponsored by the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School and the NULab at Northeastern University.

Sander van der Linden: Much like a viral contagion, misinformation can spread rapidly from one mind to another. Moreover, once lodged in memory, falsehoods are difficult to correct. Inoculation theory therefore offers a natural basis for developing a psychological ‘vaccine’ against the spread of fake news and misinformation. Specifically, in a series of lab and field studies, van der Linden will show that it is possible to pre-emptively “immunize” people against disinformation about a wide range of topics by pre-exposing and refuting severely weakened doses of the techniques that underlie its production. This process of ‘prebunking’ helps people cultivate cognitive antibodies in a simulated social media environment. During the talk, he will showcase several real-world interventions we developed and evaluated—with public health authorities, governments, and social media companies—to help citizens around the world recognize and resist unwanted attempts to influence and mislead.

Gordon Pennycook: Psychological inoculation is one of the most popular approaches to combating online misinformation – including among social media companies. In contrast to debunking (which focuses on specific misleading claims), the goal of the intervention is to get ahead of misinformation by teaching people to be better at identifying common manipulation techniques. Although this is a promising approach, the research that has supported the efficacy of inoculation interventions generally assumes that targeted manipulation techniques are actually common to misinformation. In this talk, Professor Sander van der Linden and Professor Gordon Pennycook will challenge this assumption and present data indicating that many targeted techniques are very rare in real-world misinformation. Furthermore, those techniques that are actually common, such as the use of emotional language, are also common for true content and therefore not particularly diagnostic of misinformation. The implication of these findings is that even if inoculation is successful in the lab, it is unlikely to be effective at scale.

Sander van der Linden is Professor of Social Psychology in Society in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab.

Gordon Pennycook is a Himan Brown Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor of Psychology at Cornell University. He is an Adjunct Professor at University of Regina’s Hill/Levene Schools of Business.