Fake news: inoculation, risk and values

How the inoculation theory offers a powerful way of combating the fake news



How do you counter fake news?  “With the facts, of course!” is the invariable reply from my colleagues. As scientists and engineers, they’re primed to say that. And they’re wrong.

The cluster of buildings that make up the headquarters of the company I work for are spread across acres of parkland stretching down to the Oslo fjord. It feels more like a graduate school here than a business. Arts graduates like myself are rare flowers in this firm of engineer’s engineers. Lunchtime conversations are more likely to be about hull strength and stability, blockchain, quantum computing and fluid dynamics than about the weather, cross-country skiing conditions... and fake news. You see, I’ve been conducting fieldwork amongst my colleagues for the purposes of this article. I wanted to know how my co-workers, who are arguably the world’s best error spotters, the very beagles of bad data, cope with fake news.

Typically, the first hurdle was definitional – establishing precisely what we mean by fake news. “It’s just a term used to trash news you don’t like,” said one lunch buddy. “What is the fake part, the source or the content?” asked another. After a few rounds and some googling, we decided that it was news published or aired with the deliberate intention to deceive.

We then helpfully turned to examples, quickly homing in on the hothouse of falsehood that is climate change denial. As the saying goes, fake news is old news when it comes to climate change. “Sea ice is at record lows, almost all the years since 2000 have been the hottest on record and the Climategate denialists claim scientists are manipulating data,” complained one colleague. Out came the iPhones to check the facts surrounding the so-called Climategate.

Some facts: the U.S. agency NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has been cynically accused of manipulating global warming data in a 2015 study published in the journal Science. In fact, the NOAA findings were independently and repeatedly verified by other researchers. NOAA used well-established data homogenisation techniques to control for changes in methods and instrumentation over the years, and in fact the NOAA data has since been shown to match other independently collected data sets very closely. Ka-Pow!

"There is a glaring difficulty with inoculation theory. What if the bad guys start practicing it too?"

“You can’t argue with science,” was the consensus around the lunch table. But here’s the rub. My co-workers are in creative tension with their peers every single day. Their job is to hunt down risk; to find where knowledge fails in the industries they serve and where extra eff ort needs to be invested. To be fair to them, what my geek colleagues clearly mean when they say you can’t argue with science is that a priori reasoning – for example creationist pseudo-science – is not testable with evidence from the real world. Whereas the scientific process involves a continual process of subjecting hypotheses to real world tests, leading to deeper and deeper understanding of the world around us.

Scientists often seem incapable of understanding why they would be mistrusted – as scientists indeed are by a large percentage of US citizens. Conspiracy theorists can cherry pick anomalous data, selectively quote rogue scientists motivated by professional jealously, word-play with the notion of scientific theory (conflating it with a ‘hunch’ or ‘idle speculation’)… and they find a ready audience. People are willing to believe anti-science through a process called ‘global coherence’ where subjects selectively believe only those facts which support their worldview. Even more frustratingly, throwing yet more facts at such people may encourage a “backfire effect” where the very act of passionately arguing their case, despite its empirical weakness, encourages an even stronger adherence to their original position.

If facts, therefore, and especially those facts associated with complicated, nuanced scientific inquiry, are not in themselves capable of rolling back the fake news phenomenon, what can?

Enter the fake news ‘vaccine’ in the form of something called inoculation theory. In the medical world, inoculation or ‘vaccination’ involves the introduction of a pathogen into living organism to stimulate the production of antibodies. This immunization process work pretty much the same way when applied to communication. The idea is to take a myth – for example about climate change – and inject it, in a weakened or denatured form, into a vulnerable person. When the myth comes around, spreading virus-like across social media, the ‘vaccinated’ individuals are able to resist the falsehood. In short, inoculation theory involves pre-emptively tackling false claims and providing user-friendly counterarguments.

In a study published this January, Cambridge University scientists tested inoculation theory in relation to climate change myths. As Newsweek reported in January this year: “In a survey of more than 2,000 U.S. residents, the researchers found that presenting people with scientific news alongside misinformation led to the falsehood being more widely believed. However, in a second example, it was found that presenting the same fake news as a warning led to respondents going with the truth.”

Inoculation theory is not new. In 2010, the journal Communication Monographs published a meta-analysis of 54 cases testing inoculation theory going back half a century and found inoculation messages “… to be superior to both supportive messages and no-treatment controls at conferring resistance.” John Cook, a climate communication research fellow at the University of Queensland argues that the key to ‘weakening’ misinformation for the purposes of inoculation is to expose the fallacies underpinning the misinformation – as depicted on the previous page. However, in the view of this author, there is a glaring difficulty with inoculation theory. What if the bad guys start practicing it too?

To some degree this is already happening. We are seeing powerful political figures and those with a vested interest in the status quo starting to say things like: “I believe that human activity is causing global warming. But the science is not settled as to its effects.” Such statements are difficult to inoculate against because they appear plausible – despite casting doubt on a vast body of knowledge about the dangerous effects of climate change, and diverting attention away from the need for urgent action. In his article in Scientific American, “Is climate ambiguity the new denial?”, Scott Waldman likens this to the tobacco industry playbook, where the industry shifted from saying smoking was healthy to disputing the science showing it was harmful.

The perpetuation of an ersatz ‘debate’ allowed the industry to carry on profitably for decades before regulatory crackdown.Fortunately, there is a powerful way of combating this truly sinister phenomenon of semi-fake news, and that is to reveal to people the risks associated with it. This has been shown to good effect in relation to anti-vaxxers. People may remain stubbornly unpersuaded by overwhelming evidence that there is no link between vaccination and autism, they may angrily dismiss careful explanations such as ‘correlation does not mean causation’, but when shown the dire risks they expose their children to by not vaccinating them, their stance often softens.

So, to travel a full circle back to my colleagues, many of whom are world-experts in assessing and communicating risk (including climate change related risk), I must make a point of reassuring them that they do have a great deal to offer in the fight against fake!

If risk-based communication fails to persuade there is another tack to take: culture. In communication speak, it boils down to tailoring your messages to your audiences. The 2016 poll conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication reveals that the percentage of conservative Republican voters in the USA who are supportive of renewable energy greatly exceeds those who believe global warming is caused by human activities. With that information in hand, one can reframe the debate and use language that appeals to the values of those whom you are trying to persuade.

For example, statements like: “The USA has a golden opportunity to be No.1 in renewable energy” appeal to patriotism and to the power of positivity without dog-whistling climate change, and are likely to find a receptive audience even amongst die-hard deniers.

Fake news won’t disappear any time soon, but we have a good chance of keeping things real by deploying tools like inoculation theory, risk-based communication and values-sensitive messaging.

Mark Irvine

Mark Irvine is communications manager for DBV GL. He has more than 20 years’ worth of communication and strategy-related experience with blue chip companies in South Africa, the UK and Norway. He has held senior positions in corporate communications, investor relations, trade marketing and commercial strategy, and took up his current role in 2011. Mark began his business career with mining firm Anglo American in 1992 before becoming investor relations manager for diamond company De Beers in 1998. In 2001, he moved to London to join the Diamond Trading Company, the sales and marketing arm of De Beers where he led several strategic projects.