How to inoculate yourself against misinformation

TiP-LogoThis is a re-post from the Thinking is Power website maintained by Melanie Trecek-King where she regularly writes about many aspects of critical thinking in an effort to provide accessible and engaging critical thinking information to the general public. Please see this overview to find links to other reposts from Thinking is Power.


We are drowning in misinformation. From celebrities selling their favorite diets and supplements online, to fringe medical “professionals” hawking pseudoscientific treatments on social media, to conspiracy theorists enticing followers down the rabbit hole on youtube, it’s nearly impossible to avoid exposure. 

We use information to make decisions about everything from our health to how we vote, so being misled by misinformation can cause real harm. Not only is someone usually trying to sell us something, falling for fake “cures” can literally be deadly. 

While protecting ourselves from misinformation is essential, trying to debunk each and every false claim after it pops up can feel like an overwhelming and endless game of Whac-A-Mole. (Who has the time? Or the energy?)

The secret to protecting yourself from misinformation: A healthy mental immune system.

Thankfully, science has found a solution: inoculation theory. Similar to how a vaccine builds immunity to a pathogen by exposing our bodies to a weakened form of the pathogen, we can build immunity to misinformation by exposing our minds to a weakened form of misinformation. 

Effective inoculation starts with warning individuals of the threat of misinformation. Once their guard is up, expose them to misinformation that use the same strategies as the real thing but that are less persuasive, along with techniques to resist the persuasion.

Basically, instead of debunking, inoculation pre-bunks…and in the process it trains our mental immune system to identify (and therefore not fall for!) misinformation.

Inoculations can be either fact-based or logic-based. (A third, less studied, type of inoculation is source-based.) Fact-based inoculation corrects misinformation with factual explanations, and is therefore limited to the context of that particular topic. Logic-based inoculation explains the logical fallacies or rhetorical techniques that were used to mislead, providing resistance against the same techniques in different types of misinformation. One logic-based approach uses parallel argumentation, which transplants the flawed logic of a misleading argument into an analogous – and often extreme – situation. This strategy lends itself well to humorous arguments and is therefore used regularly by late-night comedians to debunk political misinformation.

Inoculation can also be either passive or active. Passive inoculation occurs when the facts or techniques used to mislead are explained to the audience, while active inoculation builds immunity by getting people to actively create the misinformation themselves. 

A great way to learn how to spot misinformation is to create it.

Imagine a young child watching a magic show for the first time. Without any prior knowledge, the tricks could really look like magic! To convince the child there was no magic involved, one could explain how the tricks were done. But the best way would be to teach them how to perform the tricks themselves. 

I’m a big fan of active inoculation, and was using it in my classes before I even knew what it was. It’s fun and engaging…and effective! But you don’t have to be an educator to reap the benefits and protect yourself from being persuaded by misinformation.

Below are examples of articles, assignments, and games that use active inoculation:

The above list is just the tip of the iceberg. For example, if you wanted to inoculate yourself (or your students) against shows like Ghost Hunters, you could learn how to create ghost photos or haunted houses! If it’s crop circles you’ve been wondering about, figure out how to make geometric patterns in fields. You could hold seances or learn to read minds or bend spoons… the possibilities are limitless. 

In short, to know how the Wizard performs his tricks, look behind the curtain. Then learn to do them yourself.

The Take-Home Message

Misinformation has reached epidemic proportions. It’s simply not possible to debunk every false claim that comes our way. 

A much more effective and achievable solution is to inoculate enough citizens against misinformation to achieve a kind of herd immunity. It won’t be easy – critical thinking is challenging and takes effort — but the alternative is surrendering to the infodemic. 

Instead, inoculate yourself against misinformation by learning how to create it. Just make sure you use your “powers” for good, and not for fooling people!

For More Information

Cook, J. (2015). Busting myths: a practical guide to countering science denial. The Conversation. 

Kitsch, S., Cooley, S., Hinck, R., & Cooley, A. (2020). Inoculation Theory: Quick Look. The Media Ecology and Strategic Analysis Group.

McGuire, W. J., & Papageorgis, D. (1961). The relative efficacy of various types of prior belief-defense in producing immunity against persuasion.The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 62(2), 327–337. 

Norman, A. (2021). Mental immunity: Infectious ideas, mind parasites, and the search for a better way to think. Harper Wave.

Special thanks to John Cook and Daniel Walsh for their feedback.

Note: some additional related material can be found in the blog post Resources to give facts a fighting chance against misinformation.

Posted by Guest Author on Tuesday, 28 June, 2022

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