It’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.