MISINFORMATIONGetting Better at Telling Misinformation from Reliable Expert Consensus

By Diane Nazaroff

Published 15 February 2022

Psychology researchers have shown how to better communicate key messages and avoid misinformation.

If more people told you something was true, you’d think you would tend to believe it.

Not according to a 2019 study by Yale University which found that people believe a single source of information which is repeated across many channels (a ‘false consensus’), just as readily as multiple people telling them something based on many independent original sources (a ‘true consensus’).

The finding showed how misinformation can be bolstered, and it had ramifications for important decisions we make based on advice we receive from places such as governments and media on information like vaccinations, wearing masks during the pandemic, or even who we vote for in an election.

The 2019 ‘illusion of consensus’ finding has fascinated postdoctoral research associate in UNSW Science’s School of Psychology, Saoirse Connor Desai, who has tested the illusion finding and found a way for people to not be tricked with so-called ‘fake news’ from a single source.

Her team’s study has been published in Cognition.

“We found that illusion can be reduced when we give people information about how the original sources used evidence to arrive at their conclusions,” Dr Connor Desai says.

She says the finding is particularly relevant for science communication best practice – e.g. how policy makers or media present people with expert scientific evidence or research.

For instance, over 80 per cent of climate change denial blogs repeat claims from a single person who claims to be a ‘polar bear expert’ .

“You could have a situation where a misleading health proposal is repeated through multiple channels, which could influence people to rely on that information more than they should do, because they think there is evidence for that, or they think there is a consensus,” Dr Connor Desai says.

“But our finding shows that if you can explain to people where your information comes from, and how the original sources reached their conclusions, that strengthens their ability to identify a ‘true consensus’.”

Dr Connor Desai says the Yale study finding was surprising to her, “because it seemed to be an indictment of human ability to distinguish between true consensus and false consensus”.

“The original study showed that people are routinely bad at this. There were lots of situations where they are never able to tell the difference between true and false consensus,” she says.