Countering health misinformation: 5 lessons from an expert research psychologist

Photo of Briony Swire-ThompsonBriony Swire-Thompson is the Director of the Psychology of Misinformation Lab at Northeastern University. She shared the following insights about countering health misinformation with Harvard Chan’s Center for Health Communication in Fall 2022 as part of its ongoing workshop series “Health Communication in a Changing World.”

Lesson 1: Recognize the difference between misinformation and disinformation.

Misinformation is information that is inaccurate or contrary to scientific consensus. Disinformation is a deliberate effort to knowingly circulate misinformation in order to gain money, power, or reputation. In cases of disinformation, the person disseminating falsehoods often stands to gain something, often a financial incentive.

For example: A person deliberately advertising and selling an ineffective herbal cancer treatment for profit would be engaging in disinformation.

Lesson 2: People’s beliefs and ideology can make them more susceptible to misinformation that fits those beliefs.

People process information under the influence of their pre-existing values and ideas; this phenomenon is known as motivated cognition

For example: Individuals who are already skeptical of the safety or efficacy of vaccines tend to believe vaccine-related misinformation more readily than others.

Lesson 3: Even seemingly scientifically accurate articles and health-focused technology can contain misinformation.

Predatory scientific journals publish purely for monetary gain and do not engage in the peer review process, frequently publishing inaccurate information. These journals can be difficult to distinguish from legitimate scientific publications and they often appear in scientific databases such as PubMed or Google Scholar. Additionally, many health information websites and apps are unregulated and often untrustworthy.

For example: In the field of anesthesiology, there are twice as many predatory journals as there are legitimate scientific journals. Additionally, only 32% of cancer information apps aimed at the public contained scientifically valid information.

Lesson 4: Correcting misinformation is more effective than you might think.

The backfire effect — when correcting misinformation only makes a person believe it even more strongly — is largely overstated. Corrections are generally very effective. Providing factual alternatives, building credibility, and offering repeated corrections can all improve the efficacy of correcting misinformation.

For example: Repeated corrections can be an effective way to prevent “belief regression,” where a person returns to believing misinformation after it had been previously corrected.

Lesson 5: Interventions against misinformation can take many forms, beyond just correcting it.

Promoting digital health literacy, encouraging media platform intervention, and inoculating people against misinformation by informing them of common strategies used to disseminate it can all be effective interventions.

For example: A recent study examined the effects of inoculating people against misinformation by “prebunking” — teaching people about how they might be manipulated online. Users who saw a prebunking video were better at identifying misinformation than a control group.


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