The Debunking Handbook

Published: 2020

Misinformation can do damage

Misinformation is false information that is spread either by mistake or with intent to mislead. When there is intent to mislead, it is called disinformation. Misinformation has the potential to cause substantial harm to individuals and society. It is therefore important to protect people against being misinformed, either by making them resilient against misinformation before it is encountered or by debunking it after people have been exposed.

Misinformation can be sticky!

Fact-checking can reduce people’s beliefs in false information. However, misinformation often continues to influence people’s thinking even after they receive and accept a correction—this is known as the “continued influence effect” 1. Even if a factual correction seems effective—because people acknowledge it and it is clear that they have updated their beliefs—people frequently rely on the misinformation in other contexts, for example when answering questions only indirectly related to the misinformation. It is therefore important to use the most effective debunking approaches to achieve maximal impact.

Prevent misinformation from sticking if you can

Because misinformation is sticky, it’s best preempted. This can be achieved by explaining misleading or manipulative argumentation strategies to people—a technique known as “inoculation” that makes people resilient to subsequent manipulation attempts. A potential drawback of inoculation is that it requires advance knowledge of misinformation techniques and is best administered before people are exposed to the misinformation.

Debunk often and properly

If you cannot preempt, you must debunk. For debunking to be effective, it is important to provide detailed refutations 2, 3. Provide a clear explanation of (1) why it is now clear that the information is false, and (2) what is true instead. When those detailed refutations are provided, misinformation can be “unstuck.” Without detailed refutations, the misinformation may continue to stick around despite correction attempts.