Foolproof: Why We Fall for Misinformation & How to Build Immunity with Sander van der Linden (podcast)
Social psychologist and author, Prof. Sander van der Linden, whose work on the The Cambridge Overcoming Polarization Seminar is funded by Templeton World Charity Foundation's (TWCF) Listening and Learning in a Polarized World, sees misinformation as a defining problem of our times. Often dubbed Cambridge’s ‘Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher’, insights from his pioneering research on misinformation, science denial, and the psychology of influence and persuasion are now published in a new book, Foolproof: Why We Fall for Misinformation & How to Build Immunity.
We recently invited van der Linden to a salon discussion, co-hosted by TWCF President Andrew Serazin and TWCF grantee Susan MacTavish Best of Posthoc. In this conversation, van der Linden takes a hard look at why our brains are so susceptible to bad information; how we can build media literacy for ourselves and younger generations; and what to look out for when it comes to discerning facts from falsehoods. Listen to a podcast that captured the discussion.
The nexus between misinformation and societal polarization, van der Linden feels, is best explored with a multidisciplinary approach. "In psychology, we have specific definitions of what polarization means. It can mean that when you put two groups of people together on a controversial topic and they discuss it and don't agree, they end up more extreme and further away than their initial positions than before the discussion," he explained. "But in other disciplines, people have totally different definitions of what polarization means. So we've got people from computer science studying polarization models in online networks. We've got people who work on language models, and we've got people from sociology and from philosophy." By uniting these different definitions and research models, van der Linden and his team are working to demonstrate what kinds of approaches are most effective to spot misinformation.
And what van der Linden has discovered that the best way to induce "friction" — that moment when deciding what to believe and then what to share to one’s followers on social media — is to make the process fun! Realistically, however, that moment of friction is up against the aggressive onslaught from media and social media companies who benefit from advertising dollars. The more salacious and misleading the post or headline, the more "infectious" it is. And the goal of this research as he describes it, is to inoculate human beings from susceptibility to misinformation. As part of this work, van der Linden has developed a game called Bad News, which trains users to spot misinformation. He calls this learned ability "pre-bunking," or learning how to spot tactics of spreading bad information, such as presenting false dilemmas to present a topic as polarizing when it's not.
He's also created the Misinformation Susceptibility Test (MIST), featured in the new book, which asks readers to identify false headlines. One of his students is currently developing it to be another interactive online game, just like Bad News, which he hopes will be appealing to a younger audience. As MacTavish Best notes to close the conversation, "Kids are such powerful agents of change within society, and even within their own families. And yet are they being taught in the British or American education systems on how to be media literate? They are [being taught this] in Finland. What can we do better?"
Pointing to how perspectives tend to harden with age, van der Linden agreed that educating younger generations in media literacy is key to depolarizing many societies. By working with universities and schools and designing user experiences that don't make kids feel like they're being lectured to, but rather empowered in an enjoyable way, he believes we're already doing better. "In the games we produce, we allow you to step into the shoes of the manipulator — they can do all kinds of edgy stuff. In our videos, we try to use humor and things that don't feel like media literacy, but stress the preventative nature of being able to spot misinformation." He does point to Finland's program not starting until high school and not cultivating "pre-bunking" skills, although it has been quite successful.
Listen to the entire salon discussion with the above player.
POSTHOC Salons by Susan MacTavish Best celebrate the power of gathering by bringing people together to share ideas, stimulate conversations, spark connections, and build community. The salon series POSTHOC hosts with support from the Templeton World Charity Foundation asks thought-leading experts what it means to flourish.