'Prebunking' vs. debunking: How to get ahead of health misinformation

Healthcare communication professionals have been scrambling to debunk misinformation throughout the pandemic. However, creating awareness of the tropes shared among most conspiracy theories and misinformation campaigns could be a more effective approach, Wired reported Aug. 28.

The practice is sometimes referred to as "psychological inoculation." Just as vaccinated people build antibodies to fight off disease, people can resist being persuaded by misinformation after they've been exposed to the weakened arguments. Public health experts have used psychological inoculation in the past to protect people against misleading smoking advertisements and other predictable misinformation.

Fact checking individual pieces of misinformation not only allows the falsehoods to go viral while being vetted, but it also addresses only one claim, not related theories or subsequent pieces of misinformation. "Prebunking" entire tropes gives people the awareness they need to counter multiple false claims that could harm their wellbeing and public health.

Healthcare communication professionals can anticipate tropes that have been prevalent and recurrent for centuries among the anti-vaccine movement and conspiracy theories. For example, the "vaccines are unnatural" argument has proliferated in the U.S. since the 1800s, when people argued cowpox-derived smallpox vaccines would turn recipients into human-cow hybrids.

As media literacy expert Mike Caulfield argues, tropes boil down complex issues to their essential parts, leading people to jump to conclusions without all the details they need. By exposing people to common misinformation tropes, they're more likely to recognize them the next time they encounter an oversimplified misinformation theory.


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