In the struggle against fake news, one efficient approach for companies is offered by Inoculation Theory. Inoculation with a weakened version of fake news makes stakeholders immune to the news to some extent.
Fake news or ‘alternative truths’ are recent terms but the phenomenon itself is of course hardly new. False rumors have always been around, and in the last decades we have seen plenty of examples of fake news forcing companies to take measures. In 1991, Proctor & Gamble saw itself forced to change up its logo because a growing number of people were starting to believe the rumor that the logo was actually proof of the company’s ties to evil. Detractors of the logo discerned devil-horns and an array of 6s, among other things. In the same vein, in 2000, Coca Cola found itself on the defensive in the Middle East having to explain that its logo, when you turned it upside down, did not read in Arabic “No to Mohammed,” “No to Mecca.”
These were two colorful examples within the realm of brand design, but false rumors can of course also pertain to product quality or even safety, for example. Monsanto has been struggling for years now, fending off false claims that genetically modified organisms can cause cancer. A very recent example of a conspiracy (one type of false rumor) is the allegation that Bill Gates will use COVID-19 vaccines to implant microchips in people.
So fake news can be harmful to the reputation of a company and it can even threaten its license to operate. The question is now: how can companies best defend themselves against these false allegations?
Inoculation fends off fake news
What does not work sufficiently is simply trying to counter the fake news. Research has shown that fake news and a rebuttal of fake news actually cancel themselves out more than anything else. The stakeholder who ends up hearing both sides of the story is left believing neither one. Fact and “alternative fact” are like matter and antimatter – when they collide, there’s a burst of heat followed by nothing,” says John Cook (George Mason University) tellingly in this contribution.
There is one approach that does seem to be efficient, and that is applying Inoculation Theory, which is where you expose people to a weakened version of an argument (the fake news) beforehand. The result of this is that the person who hears the weakened version is made resistant to the fake news. Of course, inoculation is only warranted if you expect a group of people to be exposed to an argument.
There are typically two components to an inoculation message, Cook explains: It contains an explicit warning that the audience will be misled by misinformation, and then provides counterarguments explaining the flaws in that misinformation.
Let me revert back to the example I gave about Monsanto earlier. An inoculation strategy could have existed (I am talking in the past tense because it is late in the game to start thinking about this now) in warning stakeholders that somebody would try to persuade them that genetically modified organisms cause cancer on false grounds. The inoculation effort would then reference certain claims and explain why those claims are not true.
Research validates Inoculation Theory
Inoculation works. Of the different studies that took place in the last few years, one was conducted by Sander van der Linden, Anthony Leiserowitz, Seth Rosenthal and Edward Maibach. The researchers inoculated their audience against misinformation pertaining to climate change, namely that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists on whether or not humans cause climate change.
People were warned that “some politically motivated groups using misleading tactics” would try to convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists. The misinformation used was a much shared climate article from 2016: a petition, also known as the Oregon Global Warming Petition Project, that featured 31,000 people who held a bachelor of science or higher, who all signed a statement saying humans aren’t causing climate change. This claim was debunked by reiterating that scientific research has found that among climate scientists, there is virtually no disagreement that humans are causing climate change. The study found that public attitudes about climate change can be effectively inoculated against fake news.
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