How to deal with disinformation and fake news - 4 lessons from cognitive psychology

Published April 23, 2021, 10:44 a.m. by Arvid Westfelt

The corona crisis illustrates the difficulties in dealing with disinformation, propaganda and fake news. Research in cognitive psychology shows the risks involved in responding to false claims, as it often does more harm than good. To succeed, we have to do the opposite of how we usually deal with myths.

EUvsDisinfo, which is a part of the EU’s foreign service, has assessed disinformation about the virus. Some of the false stories that are trending according to their latest report are about biological weapons, migrants, 5G networks, natural remedies and chemtrails.

This phenomenon is obviously not new. Fake news in various forms has always appeared and affects political organizations, media, public figures, and also small and large companies. But recent events clearly show the difficulty in dealing with all kinds of disinformation – without inadvertently causing a backlash. The reason is that we are so easily manipulated.

What cognitive psychology can teach us

Research in cognitive psychology shows that we tend to believe that our perceptions of reality are the only accurate views and that we prefer information that strengthens our existing beliefs. We evaluate truths based on general acceptance by others, the amount of supporting evidence, if it is consistent with what we believe, if it comes from a credible source and if it tells a good story. And regardless of which truth criteria we use, it is more likely to pass as truth if it is easy to understand.

That is why many attempts to correct false information backfires. Because, if the effort to correct the myth makes it easier to understand, for example, by repeating it, the risk increases that the myth will feel even more real. Popular formats such as Coronavirus: More myths to ignore (BBC News), Every coronavirus myth (and fact) you need to pay attention to right now (New York Post) or Coronavirus myths and misinformation, debunked (CNN) not only repeat the myths. They also give the feeling that many believe in them, which offers even more credibility to the myths.

The right way to handle disinformation and fake news.

1. Repeat accurate information and ignore the myths if possible.
2. Make correct information easy to understand.
3. Illustrate with film and images and use easy-to-read fonts.
4. Tell a good story.

The truth is often more complicated than the myths, which puts it at a disadvantage. Our job is to make the truth as appealing and easy to understand as the lies it competes against.

* EUvsDisinfo, EEAS Special Report: Disinformation On The Coronavirus – Short Assessment Of The Information Environment, March 19, 2020.

* For an introduction to the research in cognitive psychology on the subject see Making the truth stick & the fade of myth: Lessons from cognitive psychology by Schwarz, Newman and Leach in Behavioral Science & Policy from 2016.