TRUTH DECAYFoolproof: A Psychological Vaccine Against Fake News

By Sander van der Linden

Published 14 February 2023

Even an optimistic account of our ability to spot fake news has to come to grips with the fact that not everyone needs to be fooled in order for misinformation to be highly influential and dangerous. After all, major elections are often decided on small margins, and cyber propaganda is playing an increasingly important role in tearing down the fabric of our democracy.

In an edited extract from his new book Foolproof: Why We Fall for Misinformation and How to Build Immunity, Prof. Sander van der Linden of the University of Cambridge outlines the threats to democracy and human safety posed by fake news, and takes us through his work to “inoculate” people against falling for misinformation.

Michael Whitty, a dad of three who lives in the small English town of Kirkby, had been developing some unusual ideas with the assistance of a trusted friend: the internet.

On Sunday 5 April 2020, Whitty popped on some gloves, forced open the equipment box, and set fire to a phone mast owned by Vodafone. This wasn’t a ‘heat of the moment’ decision. Whitty was convinced that the latest 5G (fifth-generation) phone masts were linked to the pandemic.

Evidence obtained from Whitty’s phone suggests he spent much time researching 5G technology and discussing it with others in online chat rooms. His anxiety stemmed from a false and debunked conspiracy theory that radiation from 5G phone masts lowers our immune systems, exacerbating the spread of Covid-19.

Nearly four years earlier, in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, Edgar Maddison Welch, a father of two from North Carolina, walked into the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington DC carrying a loaded semi-automatic assault rifle.

He was under the impression that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was hiding young children in the basement there as part of a secret child trafficking ring. Like Whitty, Welch had developed genuine concerns after reading dozens of fake news articles shared widely online.

A common response to such events is to dismiss them as the actions of outliers. Most people aren’t fooled by fake news. But is this really the case? How confident are you that your vote wasn’t influenced by micro-targeted misinformation? How much of what we read on social media is false or if not plain false, designed to make us think or feel a certain way? Whitty and Welch are not alone.

The truth is that at a basic cognitive level we are all susceptible to misinformation.

A total of at least fifty phone masts have been set ablaze throughout the UK because of widespread misinformation that 5G masts are somehow linked to the spread of Covid-19.