How to Fight ‘Fake News’ (Warning: It Isn’t Easy)

Based on the findings of those experiments, the authors offer these broad recommendations for how to expose misinformation.


Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an author of a new report on how to debunk misinformation, at a conference in San Francisco in July.

Pool photo by Jeff Chiu

Limit arguments supporting misinformation

If you have to repeat a lie, it’s best to limit the description of it, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, one of the study’s authors, who is also the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and a founder of

The problem, she and the other authors said, is that rehashing arguments in favor of misinformation can inadvertently reinforce it, strengthening the defense against the truth.

That’s especially true when the lie offers a simpler explanation than the truth, as with the discredited argument linking the vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella to the onset of autism.

“The best way to displace that would be to say, ‘Here’s a causal explanation for autism, and it isn’t that,’ but science doesn’t know the causal explanation for autism yet,” Ms. Jamieson said.

With no alternative to replace it, the discredited theory proves remarkably resilient. And repeating the arguments in the theory’s favor only make it stickier, she said.

Encourage scrutiny

When debunking information, it’s also useful to get the audience in a skeptical mind-set, the authors argue.

Take the widely refuted “birther” theory — promoted for years by President Trump — which suggests that President Barack Obama, was not, in fact, born in the United States. Just labeling the theory “false” is not as convincing to people who believe it as walking them through the reasons it can’t be true, Ms. Jamieson said.

It’s also helpful to make the audience feel engaged with the skepticism, said Dolores Albarracín, an author of the paper and a professor of psychology, business and medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“You lead them down the garden path rather than do all the work for them,” she said.

Present new information

Giving your audience new and credible information is especially effective in thoroughly unseating misinformation, the authors found.

That, they said, supports their hypothesis that the new information allows people to update their understanding of events, justifying why they fell for the falsehood in the first place.

Bonus: Video may work better than text

In a study published this summer in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Ms. Jamieson and three other authors found that videos could be especially useful in correcting misinformation. The fact-checking videos seemed to “increase attention and reduce confusion” compared with text, one of the authors said in a statement at the time.

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