Psychology Can Help Stop the Spread of Misinformation

What’s New in Psychology?

Psychology Can Help Stop the Spread of Misinformation  

Jim Windell


         It is a sad reality of our society today that misinformation abounds. Misinformation is replete on the social media, in political speeches and in some news reports.

          The American Psychological Association defines misinformation as “any information that is demonstrably false or otherwise misleading, regardless of its source or intention.”

          And in a new report from the APA, people are more likely to believe misinformation if it comes from groups they belong to or if they judge the source as credible. That report, called “Using Psychological Science to Understand and Fight Heath Misinformation: An APA Consensus Statement,” is available on the APA website. Written by a panel of U.S. and international experts on the psychology of misinformation, the report outlines the processes that make people susceptible to misinformation and offers solutions to combat it.

          Key features outlined in the report are a listing of reasons people are fooled into believing and spreading misinformation. It found, for instance, that people are more likely to believe false statements that appeal to emotions – such as fear and outrage. They are also more likely to believe misinformation that portrays groups that they view as “others” in a negative light. And people are more likely to believe information the more it is repeated – even when it contradicts their prior knowledge.

          The report also describes features of social media that help misinformation spread very quickly. “Rapid publication and peer-to-peer sharing allow ordinary users to distribute information quickly to large audiences, so misinformation can be dealt with only after the fact, if at all.

          In addition, the report notes that most online misinformation originates from a small minority of ‘superspreaders,’ but social media amplifies their reach and influence.

          Overall, the findings given in the report suggest that it is important to stop misinformation early.

          But how can misinformation be stopped?

          Debunking, “prebunking,” nudging and teaching digital literacy are several of the more effective ways to counter misinformation, the report says. In general, there are two levels on which misinformation can be stopped. These two levels are (1.) systemic approaches, such as legislation and technology standards, and (2.) individual approaches, which are focused on changing individual behaviors.

          Individual approaches include: 

  • fact-checking, or debunking. 
  • prebunking, or pre-emptive debunking to prevent people from falling for misinformation in the first place. 
  • nudges, such as asking people to consider the accuracy of information before sharing it, or rewarding people to be as accurate as possible. 
  • and formal education or community outreach to raise people’s awareness about healthy online behavior and media use.

          The report acknowledges that there is much more to learn and recommends more research funding and industry cooperation to understand behaviors related to misinformation and create tools to correct it. The panel members who wrote the report spent more than a year reviewing the scientific literature to develop their recommendations. The report was commissioned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and funded as part of a $2 million grant to develop effective solutions to COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. 

          To read the report, find it at:

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