A recent report from the American Psychological Association reviewed the available psychological science research to explore and combat health misinformation.
The World Health Organization in 2020 declared a global infodemic based on concerns that the misinformation epidemic poses a serious public health problem. Current evidence on the spread and impact of misinformation on general well-being is complex. Although the media often reported that people refused hospital treatment for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), this does not necessarily characterize the whole population.
Further, there is no experimental evidence linking misinformation exposure to observable behavioral changes. Immunization has remained a target for misinformation since the first vaccine was developed in 1796. Misinformation regarding the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine has been associated with a significantly reduced uptake.
Moreover, misinformation can amplify discord by increasing polarization and eroding trust in media, public health authorities, and democracy. It is essential to understand the psychological factors driving health misinformation.
This report reviewed the methods to address/counter misinformation, aiming to provide a consensus on three issues – susceptibility to misinformation, its growth, and interventions to counter it.
Susceptibility to misinformation
While the human brain can process a complex scene and determine if it is natural or man-made or whether a face is neutral or fearful in a fraction of a second, it is difficult to determine if the information is true or false. People rarely pay attention to the accuracy of what they read/hear and instead focus on understanding it and deciding the next course of action.
Relevant information is often stored in memory, but people fail to retrieve/use it under new, incorrect conditions. This phenomenon is called “knowledge neglect.” Research on knowledge neglect indicates that it is difficult for the brain to apply existing knowledge when presented with new information. Every individual is susceptible to misinformation to some extent.
The susceptibility to misinformation varies based on the characteristics of the information and its viewer. For instance, in-group sources are generally more believable than out-group sources, which is valid for information and misinformation. This could be because in-group sources are often perceived as more trustworthy.
The content of misinformation and the emotional impact of the content are important. For example, Americans were more likely to believe incorrect stories criticizing their opposing political parties than those criticizing their preferred parties. Moreover, repeated information is often thought truer even when it contradicts prior knowledge.
Why and how does misinformation spread?
According to a study, misinformation exposure increases belief and thereby increases sharing. Misinformation is more likely perceived as accurate when repeatedly exposed. Meanwhile, people may also share misinformation irrespective of whether they believe it. Sometimes, misinformation is willingly spread when people think it is interesting/entertaining or when they expect social rewards. Misinformation is spread on both legacy and social media.
Legacy media refers to radio, television, books, newspapers, films, and other analog media and their online presence. Media outlets follow traditional journalistic values, including neutrality, timeliness, editorial independence, and accuracy. News operations implement error correction steps to reduce false information, and fact-checkers and editors review content for inconsistencies and errors before publication.
Nevertheless, news outlets transmit misinformation when errors occur. Many errors are minor, but some can potentially lead to severe consequences. Social media, unlike legacy media, lacks pre-publication oversight. Social media has the potential to make content viral within minutes, given the rapid publication speed, distribution networks, and low entry barriers. This makes it attractive for those transmitting legitimate content and misinformation.
The peer-to-peer sharing technology also facilitates the spread of misinformation on social media platforms. Echo chambers occur when both homophily and polarization exist in a network, leading communities with similar interests/beliefs to cluster together and isolate from those that differ. Evidence suggests that the existence of echo chambers facilitates the transmission of misinformation and impedes corrections.
Interventions against misinformation
Studies have explored ways to manage and mitigate exposure to misinformation. Recently, a group of researchers identified two dimensions of interventions – individual- and system-level approaches. Individual-level approaches emphasize changing behavior, including debunking, preemptive debunking (prebunking), and nudging. In contrast, system-level strategies focus on systemic changes, such as politics, business models, legislation, and algorithms.
Debunking is the correction of misinformation after it has spread and involves providing accurate information and addressing why misinformation is incorrect. It is effective in real-world settings as well as across cultures. Nevertheless, debunking does not eliminate the effect of misinformation on a person’s memory and might not always reach the intended targets.
Prebunking refers to interventions intended to prevent belief in future misinformation attempts. Psychological inoculation is most commonly employed to prebunk misinformation and includes a forewarning about an impending attack on beliefs and a statement preemptively refuting the argument. This intervention has been reported to be effective in reducing susceptibility to misinformation and manipulation techniques.
The report offers eight recommendations to recognize and respond to misinformation in healthcare. The first recommendation is to avoid the repetition of misinformation without including corrections. Second, collaboration with social media platforms is necessary to understand and curb the spread of dangerous misinformation.
Third, misinformation correction approaches should leverage tools that promote healthy behaviors, such as social norms, counseling, skills training, and incentives. Fourth, trusted sources should be utilized to counter misinformation and offer accurate health information. Fifth, debunking should be frequently and repeatedly employed using evidence-based methods.
The sixth recommendation is prebunking to build resilience to misinformation in advance. Seventh, social media companies should provide data access and transparency on demand for research on misinformation. Finally, funding is required for research into the psychology of health misinformation and ways to counter it.