How do you debunk conspiracy theories effectively? Based on what I've seen over the years what works for people is a combination of finding out things they believed to be true were actually false, seeing people they used as sources of information give out wrong information, and being exposed to new information that gives them a more realistic context in which they can figure things out for themselves. So those are the things I focus on.
Some of this ad-hoc approach is validated by the study Debunking: A Meta-Analysis of the Psychological Efficacy of Messages Countering Misinformation, published in Psychological Science
As the researchers reported: “A detailed debunking message correlated positively with the debunking effect. Surprisingly, however, a detailed debunking message also correlated positively with the misinformation-persistence effect.”
However, Albarracín said the analysis also showed that debunking is more effective – and misinformation is less persistent – when an audience develops an explanation for the corrected information.
“What is successful is eliciting ways for the audience to counterargue and think of reasons why the initial information was incorrect,” she said.
For news outlets, involving an audience in correcting information could mean encouraging commentary, asking questions, or offering moderated reader chats – in short, mechanisms to promote thoughtful participation.
The researchers made three recommendations for debunking misinformation:
- Reduce arguments that support misinformation: News accounts about misinformation should not inadvertently repeat or belabor “detailed thoughts in support of the misinformation.”
- Engage audiences in scrutiny and counterarguing of information: Educational institutions should promote a state of healthy skepticism. When trying to correct misinformation, it is beneficial to have the audience involved in generating counterarguments.
- Introduce new information as part of the debunking message: People are less likely to accept debunking when the initial message is just labeled as wrong rather than countered with new evidence.
The paper itself goes into a little more detail on these points:
The research brings up the backfire effect - where debunking something simply can actually reinforce that false belief. This is a real problem, but can be addressed by the overall strategy of providing new (true) information and gently encouraging people to "do their own research" in a more rigorous and reality based framework.
Recommendations for debunking
Our results have practical implications for editorial
practices and public opinion.
Recommendation 1: reduce the generation of arguments
in line with the misinformation. Our findings
suggested that elaboration in line with the misinformation
reduces the acceptance of the debunking message, which
makes it difficult to eliminate false beliefs. Elaborating on
the reasons for a particular event allows recipients to form
a mental model that can later bias processing of new information
and make undercutting the initial belief difficult
(Hart et al., 2009). Therefore, the media and policymakers
should report about an incident of misinformation (e.g., a
retraction report) in ways that reduce detailed thoughts in
support of the misinformation.
Recommendation 2: create conditions that facilitate
scrutiny and counterarguing of misinformation.
Our findings highlight the conclusion that counterarguing
the misinformation enhances the power of
corrective efforts. Therefore, public mechanisms and
educational initiatives should induce a state of healthy
skepticism. Furthermore, when retractions or corrections
are issued, facilitating understanding and generation of
detailed coun-terarguments should yield optimal acceptance
of the de-bunking message.
Recommendation 3: correct misinformation with
new detailed information but keep expectations
low. The moderator analyses indicated that recipients of
misinformation are less likely to accept the debunking
messages when the countermessages simply label the
misinformation as wrong rather than when they debunk
the misinformation with new details (e.g., Thorson, 2013).
A caveat is that the ultimate persistence of the misinformation
depends on how it is initially perceived, and detailed
debunking may not always function as expected.
"Keep expectations low" is a key point. Don't get frustrated and angry when a debunking fails to take. Give it time, let it sink in, and keep lines of communication open. Effective debunking requires time for people to come around to actual reality, and in the case of those deep down the rabbit hole this time may be considerable.