Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Prebunking against COVID-19 misinformation

Basol M, Roozenbeek J, Berriche M, Uenal F, McClanahan WP, Linden S van der. Towards psychological herd immunity: Cross-cultural evidence for two prebunking interventions against COVID-19 misinformation. Big Data & Society. May 2021. doi:10.1177/20539517211013868

To fight misinformation about COVID-19, we developed and tested a 5-minute browser game as well as a series of infographics, designed to work as a psychological “vaccine” against manipulative online content.

Misinformation about COVID-19 is widespread and can range from messages about fake remedies (such as drinking bleach or eating garlic) to elaborate conspiracy theories about microchips and a “new world order”. Belief in such misinformation has been associated with reduced willingness to get vaccinated against the disease, and has been linked to acts of vandalism such as the destruction of mobile phone towers out of a mistaken belief that 5G radiation exacerbates the symptoms of COVID-19. Unfortunately, any effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19 misinformation runs into a number of problems. First, as our understanding of the virus develops, it can be hard to determine what does and doesn’t count as reliable information. Second, it’s difficult to undo the damage caused by misinformation once it’s already spread. Unverified (false) information travels faster and can spread deeper into social networks than information that turns out to be true, making it difficult for fact-checkers to keep up. Research also shows that viral information is sticky, that repeated exposure to misinformation increases the chances of it being perceived as reliable, and that even after a falsehood has been debunked, people often continue to rely on the misinformation to some extent.

Faced with these difficulties, we instead chose to focus on how to prevent COVID-19 misinformation from being effective in the first place, using an approach known as “prebunking”. Prebunking is grounded in inoculation theory, and is based on the biological analogy of an immunisation process. Much like exposure to a weakened pathogen triggers the production of antibodies, inoculation theory posits that preemptively exposing people to a weakened persuasive argument builds people’s resistance against future deception. In addition, by “inoculating” people against the techniques that are commonly used in misinformation (as opposed to against individual examples), the scalability of inoculation interventions is significantly enhanced.

In collaboration with the UK Cabinet Office, DROG, and the WHO’s “stop the spread” campaign, we developed a psychological “inoculation” intervention against COVID-19 misinformation in the form of a short, free online browser game called Go Viral! ( In this 5-minute game, players learn and are exposed to weakened doses of three manipulation techniques commonly used in COVID-19 misinformation (using excessively emotional language, using testimony from fake experts, and spreading conspiracy theories). 

Go Viral! screenshots ( game can be played in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Ukrainian. 

We tested the efficacy of this game, now published in Big Data & Society (Basol, Roozenbeek et al., 2021). We conducted two large-sample studies. In study 1 (n = 1,771), we collected data from a pre-post survey that we implemented in the game itself. Players were asked to rate the manipulativeness of tweets about COVID-19 (half of which contained misinformation and half of which did not) on a 1-7 scale. We found that players rated misinformation tweets as significantly more manipulative after playing than before, whereas they rated “real” (non-misinformation) tweets as equally reliable. 

In study 2 (n = 1,777), we tested the efficacy of Go Viral! in a randomised trial against a control group as well as a separate treatment group that read a series of infographics about COVID-19, developed by UNESCO in collaboration with inoculation researchers. We ran this study in 3 languages (English, French and German). For the UK participants, we also did a one-week follow-up to see if the “inoculation” effect persists over time. We found that playing Go Viral! and reading the infographics significantly improved people’s ability to detect manipulative content about COVID-19 as well as their confidence in doing so. For the Go Viral! game (but not for the infographics), these effects persisted for at least a week. Also, playing Go Viral! reduced the self-reported willingness to share COVID-19 misinformation with people in their network. These effects were consistent across the three languages.

Overall, our findings show robust support for the use of prebunking and psychological “vaccines” against COVID-19 misinformation. Both the Go Viral! game and the UNESCO infographics are demonstrably effective, widely accessible, and easily scalable. As the success of COVID-19 vaccination programmes worldwide depend in part on minimising the amount of unreliable information that surrounds them, our study adds to the emerging insight that behavioural science is a crucial tool to help mitigate the spread of misinformation.