Reinforcing bad info: The side effect of debunking

imageIt’s not the best job in the world to bust people’s clouds. How often have you been thanked for providing the Snopes link to debunk that urban legend? The typical reaction to Snopes-type debunking is to ignore it or reject it. In the former, people will continue to promote the falsehood when it’s advantageous to them. In the latter, they will double down on their original belief in the falsehood in what is called the Backfire Effect.

Snopes has a tendency to write headlines that reinforce the myth. Here are the top two stories from a screen cap today as examples.


The top headline totally reinforces the myth. The words “Fact Check” and “Grossly exaggerated” are in small print and only will register to people looking to learn if the rumor is true or not. In other words, those still undecided are looking for information but most people glance at headlines and don’t read further. In that case, sharing this link will unintentionally strengthen and spread the false rumor. In the second story, the headline negates the story but still includes the false picture! If readers just see the picture and they have already heard the rumor, the rumor is reinforced unless they make a conscious effort to check the vericity. I’ll be frank: Not many people want to know the truth. They just want to see what’s being talked about and will fit it to their own worldview.

This is not new information, it’s well known that Americans skim instead of reading deeply, they may not even read the story before sharing it on social media. We have to pay attention to headlines and messaging and be cognizant of the backfire effect. See The Debunking Handbook. (Really, download and print this off and study it if you do ANY skeptical blogging or sharing whatsoever. It is ESSENTIAL.)

Another unfortunate way those with good intentions undermine our own goals is by giving attention to crap news, misinformation and jokers. What if the media had not paid so much attention to Trump? Would we be in this current political pickle? What happens when you cite and link to a piece from a fake news site or one written by unscrupulous bloggers looking for clicks? You give them exactly what they want. People go there even if they intend to disagree. Maybe they will keep going there just for the entertainment value. Some people will share the original link just for a laugh. There are short odds that one of the people who sees your share will assume that the garbage is actual true or has some merit.

The typical response to this is that we MUST address misinformation, mistakes and untruths. Even though debunkers don’t get the credit we deserve by attempting to get things straight, it’s still noble to try. Check out this quote from a recent New Scientist article about misguided incentives in scientific research:

Unfortunately, researchers who take the time to debunk incorrect findings are not rewarded as highly. One analysis of widely cited ecology studies that have been called into question found that the original scientific findings were cited by other scientists 17 times more often than their rebuttals. To add insult to injury, when these rebuttals were cited, they were often misinterpreted as supporting the original findings.

Oops. See what I mean?

So what do we do? We can’t stop being a skeptical voice that is so desperately needed in the online sea of garbage. We must counter with good information presented in a effective way.

Talk about your own work. As an insightful academic commented to me, we need to “own” these issues, not let the fakers have full rein. Package it in a positive, engaging way that grabs the audience’s attention and encourages remembering of the facts you present. The sensational stuff will always get a greater response but the more solid information that is out there the better chance there is to make a dent in search results and be useful for those who are interested in the full story, not just the half-assed version.

Frame the rumor in a way that promotes the truth, not reinforces the falsehood. This can be difficult. But here’s an simple example for a typical paranormal claim. Instead of “This photo does not show a ghost” [with accompanying photo], use “Phone app used to create fake ghost photo” [with accompanying photo]. This second way reinforces the true message and associates it directly with being fake. The Atlantic used a similar technique with fake photos from Hurricane Sandy. Clearly identify the photo as fake RIGHT ON THE PHOTOGRAPH ITSELF. Put the practices in The Debunking Handbook to use.

Inoculate. Write about pseudoscience and misleading claims before they hit the news. Explain why they are problematic. Better yet, try to aim towards younger audiences, arming them with the tools to make judgements about claims before they have to face them. Just like comprehension tests where you read the questions about a passage before you read the passage, you will be primed to seek the important items instead of overlooking them.

There are other ways to debunk bunk effectively in person or in a discussion but that is another skill entirely. It’s one I have to work at. The important message is no matter how frustrating it seems, artfully and skillfully debunking is worthwhile. It’s not a waste of time to provide verifable, sound, science-based conclusions. Society needs it!

Have other ideas about effective debunking in writing? Please share.


8 thoughts on “Reinforcing bad info: The side effect of debunking

  1. You made a great point that I am constantly forced to emphasize: DO NOT link to the original hoax. I’ve warned Snopes about this a couple of times, but their format requires it. They end up promoting what they debunk, and helping the hoaxer profit, which only leads to more crap. As a society we need to adopt a “don’t click, don’t share” policy for bad sources of information we’ve identified.

  2. The format Snopes uses is absolutely horrible. As you point out, the headline and blurb they use often actually reinforces misinformation much of the time.

    While there is enough blame to go around concerning how misinformation, hoaxes and the like get spread around, I think the media has to shoulder much of the responsibility for spreading this nonsense. Simple fact checking seems to have become an obsolete art form. Editors no longer actually ‘edit’ anything.

  3. Much as I hate to pile on Snopes, I think this wonderful, formerly esteemed website could use a bit of counseling, perhaps even an advisory council, to get them back into the good graces of the skeptical and science communities.

    1. Take all the fake news items and group them under a helpful subhead…maybe “Fake News.” To their credit, the Snopes folks have taken a step in this direction after an apparent free-for-all period where a reader had to open each item to see if it was an out-and-out fake news item or an actual urban legend. Even now, though, you have to open the item to see whether it’s from a “humor” fake news site, an urban legend, a chain letter or a legitimate news item.

    2. Get rid of those annoying fake bios that follow each item
    “…he earned a degree at the University of His Choosing. His exploration of Internet truth has been supported by grants from the Facebook Drug Task Force.” and
    “…she was investigated and found to be “probably false” by in early 2002″

    Imagine how much credibility we have when we forward a Snopes report to someone who then looks at the reporter’s bio and has to wonder how much of the article to take seriously since apparently the author is some kind of humorist. The joke bios are a great in-joke for conferences and public speaking engagements but do a severe disservice to those not in on the joke.

  4. I try to do my own debunking or following up on a questionable story but I always end up frustrated because I hit a brick wall. And if you ask on some sites how they debunked something they seem reluctant to share info about how they actually do it. They want you to know this is fake but they don’t share how they went about it. As far as fake photos , when ever I try to do a google image search I get nothing. Only when I did a search of a very famous photo, cover of Beatles Abby Road album, did I realize it actually worked.. I too get frustrated with snopes for just the reasons people here have said.

  5. L.Barth, I share your frustration when trying to track down the sources or supporting information for some of this stuff. You can quickly get lost in an endless loop of self-referential sources, a maze of questionable “news” stories, etc. I don’t recall the details any longer, but I once spent an hour tracking down the original study behind an alleged news story. It was a maze of websites referring to each other, to news stories on legitimate sites that didn’t seem to exist, opinion pieces. I finally found it at last, buried in an obscure UK journal, only to discover the study that they cited had absolutely nothing to do with it at all. The ‘reference’ that the story I was trying to track down was single line that was actually in the bio of one of the researchers if I remember correctly.

  6. I’m not surprised. This same echo chamber approach was used by the Bush administration to sell the Iraq war.

  7. Dear Mr. Hillary4Prison:

    I can’t respond to you because you were not “keeping it real” enough to provide a real email address. Since my blog comment thread is not your space to hijack with misogynistic drivel, I don’t show your comment. But thank you for reinforcing the idea that some men (from around Missouri according to your ISP address) are threatened by strong, opinionated, smart women. Your comment reflected that you are willing to shoot your mouth off about me after 5 minutes of reading (as you admit) and claim to know all about me. This says everything about how you are and tells me that I’m pressing some nerve in people who wish to return to old times when women had lesser rights. Maybe you should go to a repressive extremist country where that is the case but it will never be so in the U.S. And, you say ‘bitch’ like it’s a bad thing. It’s not. It means I appear to have some kind of advantage over you that you have to call me names to get attention. Please consider writing your own blog, this one is not for you.

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