In the fight to improve critical thinking, organizations are highlighting the value of “prebunking” as a tool to reduce susceptibility to fake news. Debunking is the process of exposing a falsehood, while prebunking is a preventative strategy that focuses on teaching individuals how to spot fake news. It has often been compared to a vaccination for the mind, described as a psychological “inoculation” against misinformation and disinformation.
In 2022, Google’s internet safety educational division Jigsaw rolled out a trial of new prebunking videos, designed to test the effectiveness of this educational approach in the wild. Working with Cambridge University, the search giant tested a series of 90 second videos, shared both in lab conditions and as adverts on popular YouTube videos, utilising popular culture characters such as Homer Simpson to share some of the most common manipulation techniques. The content of these videos was deliberately non-partisan and utilised simple language to engage the attention of the reader. They published the results in a report in the Science Advances Journal, highlighting that prebunking does “improve manipulation technique recognition, boost confidence in spotting these techniques, increase people’s ability to discern trustworthy from untrustworthy content, and improve the quality of their sharing decisions.”
Speaking to the methodology, the study, which incorporated testing with 30,000 participants, reports “Participants were randomly assigned to watch either a 1.5-min inoculation video or a neutral control video of approximately equal length. After watching a video, participants rated 10 synthetic social media posts (mimicking Twitter and Facebook). Each post was randomly either manipulative (i.e., it made use of a manipulation technique) or a neutral counterpart (similar in content and length to the manipulative post but not making use of the manipulation technique).” Speaking to the results, the study explains “Watching an inoculation video improves people’s ability to recognize manipulation techniques in social media content and increases their confidence in their ability to do so. In addition, the videos improve people’s ability to distinguish trustworthy and untrustworthy content, as well as the quality of their sharing decisions (i.e., they are either less likely to share manipulative content with others or more likely to share neutral/non-manipulative content).”
What the research has yet to consider is the long-term value of prebunking and how long the inoculation effect will last for those that watch the videos. The effect is significant enough, however, that it is already being employed in Eastern European countries, to directly tackle anti-refugee narratives and propaganda that is circulating from the Ukrainian conflict. Google’s videos were streamed 38 million times across Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter. Jigsaw has also gone on to produce a practical guide to prebunking, which sets out the why, when, and how of prebunking.
There are in fact two approaches to prebunking, “passive” and “active”, although people most commonly consider the passive form when thinking about the subject. Passive prebunking refers to the “opt-out” methodology, such as adverts included on YouTube videos for example, where the viewer is presented with the content automatically. This is most effective in reaching the masses, but the long-term effects are unknown. Many researchers and developers are also therefore focussing on active prebunking, developing games and educational materials that require the user to “opt-in” in the pursuit of knowledge. It is much the same as our recommendation to practise critical thinking, as an opportunity to reduce the impact of coercive control through media, relationships, and interactions.
Fake news, and particularly disinformation and propaganda are used to coercively control individuals and groups into believing a certain narrative. It is rife and growing. COVID-19 conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers shared their anti-vaccine content; Russia and its allies are sharing anti-Ukrainian propaganda; and extremist groups have used fake news to incite violent behavior. There is even evidence of it affecting election results, and encouraging membership of high-control groups too. Critical thinking is a front-line defence against coercive control through these mediums, and both passive and active prebunking can be a useful and effective tool in understanding and learning these techniques. Media Literacy is also a key factor, and a great way of considering critical thinking in an immediately effective sense.