Foolproof, Sander van der Linden

Rukmani and her family were driving to a temple in Tamil Nadu, India, in May 2018 when they stopped to ask an elderly local woman for directions. It seemed safe enough.

Unbeknownst to the family, nearly every local with access to WhatsApp was receiving horrific “baby lift” alerts forwarded from group chat to group chat. The local woman thought these overly friendly strangers fit the description and raised the alarm. The mob descended to the family car and began a brutal mob beating that resulted in Rukmani being killed and the rest left on the brink of death. Disinformation can be fatal.

These days there are many people trying to fool us, and many people are happy to be deceived. Sander van der Linden, a professor of social psychology at the University of Cambridge, has been studying this issue for years and promises to help us “build up immunity” to disinformation.

This is a noble goal. But why are we susceptible to misinformation? How reliable (US) (Great Britain) explains there are many answers to this question. Consider the “illusory truth effect” discovered in the 1970s. If you ask people to rate the truth or falsity of a set of statements, such as “Potassium is the lightest of all metals” or “Lake Superior is the largest lake in the world”, they are more likely to rate the statements as true. if they’ve seen them before. Familiar statements seem to be true. This is an unfortunate cognitive label; none of the above statements are true, and, alas, now you can start to think differently.

The illusory truth effect is an instructive example of the dangers of fighting disinformation. It is all too easy for journalists, educators, and fact-checkers to inflate and amplify lies in an attempt to debunk them. But the illusory truth effect is just one of dozens of factors to consider when understanding false information and disinformation. For example, “identity-protecting cognition,” where we place more value on protecting our place in a social group than revealing the truth, and “nano-targeting dark posts,” when some political campaign uses your psychological profile to expose you. Facebook ads designed for you and only you. Some of these factors are as old as human nature and some are as new as the latest application.

There is a lot to think about here, and the good news is that Foolproof provides a review that is authoritative, comprehensive, and chatty. You won’t find a better overview of what is currently a vast interdisciplinary landscape, and that alone is a great service.

The bad news is that the attempt to replace academic obfuscations with clear, persuasive prose has not been entirely successful. Van der Linden’s use of brackets is sometimes (difficult) to make out. His “useful outline” on page 36 was beyond me and contains terms that seem important but don’t appear in the index. He also likes to talk about times when he or his ideas were presented in important places with important people.

However, what really matters is whether his “psychological vaccine against fake news” is effective. Foolproof offers a number of ideas for combating disinformation, but most of all focuses on the method van der Linden is best known for: inoculation against lies. The idea is to “preliminarily disprove” the false statement by mentioning it and warning against it in advance. It’s not exactly a new idea, but van der Linden convincingly proves that it works, is durable and practical. For example, YouTube may run pre-messages before conspiracy videos in a space normally reserved for ads.

Those hoping for silver bullets will be disappointed. Could Rukmani’s life have been saved by technical changes that slowed down WhatsApp’s messaging speed? May be. Foolproof explains that such changes are “useful,” four pages after warning that they are “rarely enough.”

This is a frustrating ambiguity; this is also true. In the fight against disinformation, we can only count on useful but rarely sufficient tools.

Written and first published in Financial Times February 22, 2023

My first children’s book truth detective already released (not yet in the US or Canada – sorry).

I created a showcase at the Bookstore in United States And Great Britain. Links to Bookshop and Amazon can generate referral fees.