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Misinformation can be corrected using effective debiasing strategies

Walter N & Murphy S. How to unring the bell: A meta-analytic approach to correction of misinformation Communication Monographs. 2018; 85(3): 423-441.

Review question

•    Is it possible to correct misinformation? What are the best strategies to do so?

Background

      In 2016, the Oxford Dictionary announced “post-truth” as its word of the year.

      Indeed, the notion that many people are misinformed about health, politics, science, and the environment has become prevalent within society.

      According to recent research, half of the American public consistently endorses at least one conspiracy theory.

      Given the growth of misinformation, it is especially discouraging that many strategies to correct misinformation have been found to be ineffective or cause the opposite effect, paradoxically serving to strengthen the falsehood.

      The aim of this systematic review is to examine the effectiveness of various methods to correct misinformation.

How the review was done

      Review authors searched eight research databases, the reference lists of relevant studies, and contacted leading scholars in the field of misinformation for suitable studies for inclusion in this review.

      In order to be included in the review, studies had to contain evidence about ways to correct misinformation and employ valid and reliable study methodologies.

      A total of 608 studies were retrieved from the initial search, 65 of which were included in the review after assessments for eligibility.

      This work was supported by the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California (United States). No potential conflict of interest was reported by review authors.

What the researchers found

      The results of this review demonstrated that attempts to correct misinformation can be successful across diverse domains and audiences, and using different strategies.

      The review also revealed that debiasing misinformation seem to be more successful in the realm of health than politics or marketing. Supporting this, authors found that people tend to be more resistant to change when it comes to their political identity. This is especially true among individuals of higher education.

      With regard to the specific correction techniques, authors found that appeals to coherence were generally more successful then fact-checking or critiques of source credibility.

      Indeed, corrective messages that integrate retractions with alternative explanations were found to be the most effective strategy to debunk falsehoods. In other words, a correction attempt tends to be most effective when a reason is provided about why the false information started in the first place. Once people are exposed to a coherent message that can explain the chain of events, they are more likely to adhere to the new information.

      Timing appears to influence the relative success of corrective messages. Specifically, debunking misinformation was found to be most effective when a moderate amount of time (more than a few hours but less than a day) has passed from when the individual was initially introduced to the falsehood. It is believed that this is because sufficient time has passed for the person to process the information.

      Finally, some weak evidence indicated that audience characteristics play a role in changing beliefs. Specifically, corrections seem to work better for student samples compared to non-student samples. Authors believed that this could have to do with the relatively younger age of students, which can make them more accepting of alternative explanations.

Conclusion

      In summary, this review offered an optimistic perspective on the efficacy and potential of correcting misinformation.

      While it is true that corrections can be ineffective, or even counterproductive, they tend to work most of the time.

      While fact-checking can be an effective tool for addressing falsehoods, authors concluded that corrective messages should ideally include a retraction along with an alternative explanation for the misleading information.




Glossary

Systematic review
A comprehensive evaluation of the available research evidence on a particular topic.

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