We’re suffering a deluge of fake news, rumors and misinformation. Michelle Obama is filing for divorce. Monica Lewinsky was found dead after a burglary. Katy Perry brokered peace with the Islamic State. Those are just a few of the many examples of fake news.
Brands are not immune from the trend. Reese’s Peanut Butter is being discontinued. PepsiCo is discontinuing Mountain Dew. Walt Disney World is permanently closed due to Hurricane Irma. All fake news. Some of the fake news is more believable, especially stories involved with public policy, politics, international affairs or celebrities.
PR, corporate communicators and other fact checkers struggle to counter the torrent of falsehoods.
New research offers valuable advice on how to debunk falsehoods. Researchers at the Social Action Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania examined 20 experiments in eight research reports involving 6,878 participants and 52 independent samples. They published the report “Debunking: A Meta-Analysis of the Psychological Efficacy of Messages Countering Misinformation” in the Journal of Psychological Science.
Misinformation is Very Difficult to Correct
“The effect of misinformation is very strong,” said co-author Dolores Albarracin, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “When you present it, people buy it. But we also asked whether we are able to correct for misinformation. Generally, some degree of correction is possible but it’s very difficult to completely correct.”
The researchers offer these recommendations for debunking falsehoods:
Limit your description of misinformation if you have to repeat it. If you repeat it, you may inadvertently strengthen it, especially if the false argument offers a simpler explanation than the truth or when science cannot yet offer definite answers. That’s the case with the debunked agreement that vaccines cause autism.
“The best way to displace that would be to say, ‘Here’s a causal explanation for autism, and it isn’t that,’ but science doesn’t know the causal explanation for autism yet,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, one of the study’s authors, told The New York Times.
Encourage the audience to be skeptical. Make the audience feel engaged with the skepticism. Try to get the audience involved in generating counterarguments. Guiding the audience through reasons why misinformation cannot be true is more effective than just calling it false.
Introduce new information. New information allows people to update their understanding of events, justifying why they fell for the falsehood in the first place. The more detailed the debunking message, the more the audience will drop adherence to misinformation.
Employ media monitoring systems. The authors encourage the continued development of “alerting systems” for debunking misinformation. Current alerts include Snopes.com (fake news), RetractionWatch.com (scientific retractions), and FactCheck.org (political claims). PR professionals for businesses and non-profits that wish to debunk a specific piece of fake news can notify those alerting services and publish corrections of misinformation on their corporate and brand websites and in the organization’s social media accounts.
“Such an ongoing monitoring system creates desirable conditions of scrutiny and counter-arguing of misinformation,” the researchers note.
Corporations, nonprofits and other organizations can use a media monitoring tool that reports mentions of their brands, products and services. Real time alerts can immediately notify the PR and marketing staff when the organization is mentioned on websites and social media. The organization will be able to quickly counter any misinformation on social media before it spreads.
Human analysts. Automated monitoring and measurement software may not be able to detect a fake news story. That may require human analysts who are knowledgeable about the organization and its products. The content analysis to identify fake news stories could be outsourced to the media monitoring service or done by the organization’s own staff.
Combat fake news with video. An earlier study published in the Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly revealed that videos are more interesting and understandable than comparable text-based statements. Videos can increase attention and reduce confusion better than regular text-based fact-checks, according to the research from the Annenberg Public Policy Center. While humor can be effective, non-humorous videos can correct misinformation just as well. Producing videos that are both funny and deliver a pointed argument can be challenging.
Bottom Line: New research reveals the most effective techniques for combatting fake news and correcting misinformation. The bad news is that people often stubbornly cling to falsehoods, especially if they offer simple explanations. The good news is that fact checkers, including PR and corporate communications professionals, can combat false news reports with tenacity and the right tools.