CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its boots on,” Winston Churchill once famously said.
Or was it the infinitely quotable Mark Twain who said it first? Jonathan Swift … ? Or Alexander Pope ... ?
Once it’s unleashed, the effects of misinformation – whether it’s a misattributed quote or even something less benign like the often-cited “fake news”phenomenon – persist. Even in the face of a prevailing counterargument or evidence, misinformation can’t be wholly eradicated, says a new paper co-written by a University of Illinois expert in social psychology.
Although a detailed message that effectively countered misinformation correlated positively with its debunking, it also led to the “misinformation-persistence effect,” according to a meta-analysis published by Dolores Albarracin, a professor of psychology at Illinois.
“Misinformation can have a large impact,” Albarracin said. “If you’re going into something with a blank slate, your first impression is a huge one. And if that first impression is misinformation, it’s still hard to erase or correct. Sometimes you can be successful, but it will rarely be as successful as the initial misinformation.”
The meta-analysis considered relevant scholarship about news reports published between 1994-2015 in areas such as political science, communication and public health. The authors conclude that consumers of misinformation later struggle to question and change their initial attitudes and beliefs.
“The way in which social and cognitive psychologists understand this is that you form a mental model the first time you take in the information, which ultimately is not easy to remove,” said Albarracin, also a professor of business administration. “Unless you get people to, essentially, rebuild a new model, the earlier information will likely stick.”
To combat misinformation, the authors offer three recommendations:
- Reduce the creation of arguments in line with the misinformation.
- Create conditions that facilitate scrutiny and criticism of misinformation.
- Correct misinformation with new detailed information – but keep expectations low.
Misinformation is like a stain in that it’s much easier “to introduce than it is to remove later on,” Albarracin said.
“The primary way to do it better, to erase that stain, is you really have to change the attitude of the audience,” she said. “You have to make them question the misinformation in an active way. The message has to enact some sort of inner change on the audience for them to change their mind. You have to help them destroy the actual misinformation itself that they previously intuited.”
The results have practical implications for editorial practices and public opinion, as debunking misinformation is an important scientific and public-policy goal, Albarracin said.
“Anything that triggers active participation in the audience – readership contributions, comments and debate, questions to the host of a show, and questioning of the information by the audience – would be more effective than even the most detailed countermessage,” Albarracin said.
“Ultimately, it’s the audience that needs to bring coherence to the new narrative.”
The paper will be published in the journal Psychological Science.
Albarracin’s co-authors are Man Pui Sally Chan, of the University of Illinois, and Christopher R. Jones and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, of The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration Center for Tobacco Products.