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Social Action Lab

Misinformation, Misconceptions, and Conspiracy Theories in Communication

What impact does misinformation have on society, and what are the best ways to combat it?

In recent years, “fake news” has been a dominant theme in our society, and indeed we can observe a constant flow of misinformation being disseminated through different forms of media. In the last decade, research conducted in our lab has estimated the impact of misinformation presented in the news as well as the best ways to fight this type of misinformation. We are also interested in how scientific misinformation is revised and the psychological dynamic underlying conspiracy beliefs. One current project involves developing methods to have communities correct misinformation, whereas another seeks to understand how conspiracy beliefs are created.

Selected Findings

Misinformation is easy to inject but hard to correct. Now we also know how much harder.

In a meta-analysis of all the available data on the impact of misinformation in news programs, as well as the efforts to correct it, we found that misinformation works much more easily than the efforts to undo it. The data reveal that misinformation is almost always accepted as fact — a staggering 99.6% of the time — whereas attempts to correct it succeed only in only 83% of cases. That leaves roughly 17% of the population still believing in misinformation, even when shown evidence to the contrary. Given that people are almost universally susceptible to misinformation — by far the strongest effect our lab has ever estimated — we can see that correctives do work on the majority of people, but leave a sizable minority misinformed.

To correct misinformation, keep it short. 

Our research has found that detailed corrections, often seen as potentially effective, have less impact than succinct ones. The reason appears to be that the detailed ones remind audiences of the misinformation itself, which only serves to reinforce its impact.

Family and friends can reduce vaccine hesitancy.

It has come to be conventional wisdom that social media, particularly the like minded groups gathering there, is behind many people’s reluctance to vaccinate themselves. We asked ourselves, “Do people who oppose vaccines seek out groups that feel similarly? Or, do people who join these groups by accident later learn to oppose vaccines? 

At the Annenberg Public Policy Center, we surveyed about 3,000 Americans over the course of a year, and our lab gathered tweets about vaccines. We found that in locations where many tweets centered around vaccine fraud, big pharma, and children, people in those counties were less likely to get a flu shot in the months to come. However, this association was absent when people had discussions about vaccines with family and friends. We thus learned that discussions with family and friends can debunk misconceptions and that, in their absence, social media misconceptions and misinformation can lead to a decline in flu vaccination.

Trusting in science can make people susceptible to misinformation.

Typically, instilling trust in science is touted as a means to combat beliefs in fake news and conspiracy theories. What we found, however, is that often misinformation uses the language and style of real science to make a counterfactual case. Ironically, a belief in science makes people susceptible to pseudoscience. Fortunately, we also found that inducing a critical evaluation mindset reduces the impact of all misinformation: pseudoscientific and more obvious misconceptions. Learn more.

Photo Credit (top image): iStock / ViewApart

Red handprint in paint on a navy blue background by Scott Rodgerson / Unsplash

Upcoming Book

Creating Conspiracy Beliefs: How our Thoughts are Shaped
Cambridge University Press, Dec. 2021

Co-authored by Dolores Albarracín, Julia Albarracín, Sally Chan, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the book proposes a new theory about the formation of conspiracy beliefs.