Four Responses to the Problem of Misinformation Online

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Most people agree that misinformation online is a menace to society. But what has been the response? Four different responses to the problem of information disorder and echo chambers have been applied online. The initial response was to do nothing and leave content consumers to discern for themselves. It was argued that the Web is a place for free expression: online liberty should not be stifled [1].

As misinformation became more widespread online, the next response was to censor harmful content (removal of content that was deemed not fit for public consumption) [2]. More recently, third-party actors have created websites that use a set of criteria to fact-check trending online content or certify the credibility (trustworthiness) of popular online news websites [3,4]. These third-party arbiters of truth and credibility use prescriptive tools to help sanitize online content.

Researchers have revealed the limitations of fact-checking as a misinformation prevention strategy [5]. Particularly when deeply held beliefs are involved, providing ‘facts’ alone may not change beliefs. Sometimes the opposite effect of strengthening the false belief occurs. This has led to the strategy of trying to prevent or neutralize misinformation through ‘inoculation’ or ‘prebunking’ [6]. Prebunking or inoculation involves exposing the flawed argumentation techniques of misinformation to prepare online content consumers against future misinformation. The importance of timing when correcting ‘fake news’ has been emphasized in a study to demonstrate the effectiveness of ‘debunking’. ‘Debunking’ was defined as fact-checks after misinformation exposure, ‘labeling’ (fact-checks of information presented during exposure) and ‘prebunking’ (fact-checks before exposure).

 

[1] McCarthy T. Zuckerberg says Facebook won’t be ‘arbiters of truth’ after Trump threat, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/may/28/zuckerberg-facebook-police-online-speech-trump

[2] Business Standard. After Facebook, Twitter removes Trump’s tweets on us Capitol protests,  https://www.business-standard.com/article/international/after-facebook-twitter-removes-trump-s-tweets-on-us-capitol-protests-121010700154_1.html

[3] Snopes. https://www.snopes.com/

[4] NewsGuard. https://www.newsguardtech.com/

[5] Cook J, Lewandowsky S and Ecker UK, et al. 2017. Neutralizing misinformation through inoculation: exposing misleading argumentation techniques reduces their influence. Plos One 2017; 12:5 e0175799.

[6] Brashier NM, Pennycook G, Berinsky AJ, et al. Timing matters when correcting fake news. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2021; 118: 5 e2020043118.

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