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The Debunking Handbook 2020: Misinformation is damaging and sticky

Posted on 16 October 2020 by John Cook, BaerbelW

This blog post is part 1 of a series of excerpts from The Debunking Handbook 2020 which can be downloaded here. The list of references is available here.

Misinformation can do damage

DBH-damageMisinformation 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 damages society in a number of ways 4, 5. If parents withhold vaccinations from their children based on mistaken beliefs, public health suffers 6. If people fall for conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19, they are less likely to comply with government guidelines to manage the pandemic 7, thereby imperiling all of us.

It’s easy to be misled. Our feelings of familiarity and truth are often linked. We are more likely to believe things that we have heard many times than new information.

This phenomenon is called the “illusory truth effect” 8, 9. Thus, the more people encounter a piece of misinformation they do not challenge, the more the misinformation seems true, and the more it sticks. Even if a source is identified as unreliable or is blatantly false and inconsistent with people’s ideology, repeated exposure to information still tilts people towards believing its claims 10, 11, 12, 13.

Misinformation is also often steeped in emotional language and designed to be attention-grabbing and have persuasive appeal. This facilitates its spread and can boost its impact 14, especially in the current online economy in which user attention has become a commodity 15.

Misinformation can also be intentionally suggested by “just asking questions”; a technique that allows provocateurs to hint at falsehoods or conspiracies while maintaining a facade of respectability 16. For example, in one study, merely presenting questions that hinted at a conspiracy relating to the Zika virus induced significant belief in the conspiracy 16. Likewise, if you do not read past a headline such as “Are aliens amongst us?” you might walk away with the wrong idea.

Where does misinformation come from?

Misinformation ranges from outdated news initially thought to be true and disseminated in good faith, to technically-true but misleading half-truths, to entirely fabricated disinformation spread intentionally to mislead or confuse the public. People can even acquire misconceptions from obviously fictional materials 17, 18. Hyper-partisan news sources frequently produce misinformation 19, which is then circulated by partisan networks. Misinformation has been shown to set the political agenda 20.


  • Misinformation: False information that is disseminated, regardless of intent to mislead.
  • Disinformation: Misinformation that is deliberately disseminated to mislead.
  • Fake news: False information, often of a sensational nature, that mimics news media content.
  • Continued influence effect: The continued reliance on inaccurate information in people’s memory and reasoning after a credible correction has been presented.
  • Illusory truth effect: Repeated information is more likely to be judged true than novel information because it has become more familiar.

Misinformation can be sticky!

DBH-stickyFact-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.

A fundamental conundrum with misinformation is that even though corrections may seem to reduce people’s beliefs in false information, the misinformation often continues to influence people’s thinking—this is known as the “continued influence effect” 1. The effect has been replicated many times. For example, someone might hear that a relative has fallen ill from food poisoning. Even if they later learn that the information was incorrect—and even if the person accepts and remembers this correction—they might still show a lingering reliance on the initial misinformation in different contexts (e.g., they might avoid the restaurant allegedly involved).

Fact-checking and corrections appear to “work” when you ask people directly about their beliefs. For example, people may report the correction accurately and state that they no longer believe the original misinformation. But that doesn’t guarantee that the misinformation will not pop up elsewhere, for example when answering questions or making indirectly related decisions.

Even though misinformation is sticky, we have opportunities to respond. We can prevent misinformation from taking root in the first place. Or we can apply best practices to debunk misinformation successfully.

Sticky myths leave other marks 

There is much evidence that updates to factual beliefs, even if successful, may not translate into attitude or behaviour change. For example, in polarized societies (e.g., the U.S.) people indicate that they will continue to vote for their favored politician even if they discover that the majority of the politician’s statements are false 21, 22, 23. Fortunately, it does not have to be that way. In less polarized societies (e.g., Australia), people’s voting intentions are sensitive to politicians’ truthfulness 24.

Nevertheless, do not refrain from debunking because you are worried it will not change behaviour. Successful debunking can affect behaviour—for example, it can reduce people’s willingness to spend money on questionable health products or their sharing of misleading content online 25, 26.

To learn more, continue with Prevent misinformation from sticking if you can

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