Debunking: A Meta-Analysis of the Psychological Efficacy of Messages Countering Misinformation

Mick West

Staff member

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

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.

"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.

Sarah T.

New Member
I searched to see if his name has been mentioned already in these forums and was surprised to see it wasn’t. James Atherton has written quite a bit (in a pretty heavy academic style) on the psychology of learning, especially the barriers to what he calls “supplantive learning”- where the lesson is not merely going to fill a void- but new information has to replace something that is already accepted. He describes a destabilization process that most people try hard to avoid- letting go of the old beliefs to make room for the new ones: Learning as Loss.


Critical Thinker

Senior Member
From : The ‘Liar’s Dividend’ is dangerous for journalists. Here’s how to fight it.



Staff member
By showing that good reporting starts with skepticism and isn’t predisposed to believe a tip until it can verify it
pfft. like the kids from Coventry story? If newspapers would stop being so agenda driven/bias and be more careful to mark opinion pieces as "opinion", then maybe the general public wouldn't distrust the source so much.

and what was that other doozy the Washington Post printed? ProporNot.

Proper journalistic standards wont help the extreme believers of course, but it would help bunk from spreading in the more reasonable general public. Of course, from a business viewpoint I'm not sure any news outlet with proper journalism standards could survive now adays in this "click bait driven" society.

edit add: I just read the full article, and everything I just said is what the article is actually saying. a good example how you can misunderstand intent with quotes out of context.
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Having issues with the QUOTE function on my tablet, but trying to reply to @Dierdre post directly above.

Strongly agree that both flagging Opinion pieces and practicing proper journalism will solve a lot of the problems. A couple of years ago, I was fed up with the amount of complete garbage news articles in my various aggregated (like and, etc.) and direct/creators like MSNBC, CBS, FOX, etc.) and decided to create a web crawler that would rate them by journalistic standards. My first step was completely manual.

I had a list of 6 sites (top 6 from a web search for most popular news sites) that I visited every day at a specific time each day and read and rated the first “N” articles on each site. They were scored by whether the article covered the basics of: who, what, when, where, why, and how. The ideas was to score one point for each “hit”, which would tell you how well they covered their topic. The scores were supposed to roll up to a site score for reliability.

After a week, I had to rethink the testing methodology because NOT ONE of the articles contained more than 3 or 4 of the basic, required elements that I learned in journalism class. The new categories added scores for things like: thinly-veiled-advertisements-masquerading-as-news, stubs (intro paragraph with a link to find out more), clickbait, person-bashing, copied/repeated from another article, no links to sources of claims, and on and on and on.

The research stopped after the second week because none of my news sources had produced a single news article that met my primary journalistic rating criteria. In other words, not a single article met the criteria that I had to meet when I wrote articles for the school newspaper ‘way back in 19~~. The project to identify adherence to journalist integrity was pointless and trying to identify clickbait through programmatic means was beyond my scope.

My conclusion is that, while there are sites with journalistic integrity, they are not those that are most popular. The click-bait approach to journalism has dramatically lowered the amount and quality of information in our online media. Correspondingly, countering the need for clicks with facts is a challenging problem. Metabunk and @Mick West interview outreach are excellent. Google search results often drive people to this site which makes every attempt to focus on facts. A concerted effort on the part of the Metabunk community to comment on online articles and link to Metabunk threads will surely, gradually, increase the knowledge base of the media, but it’s a long, arduous journey.

To tie this back to the topic, referral to, and referencing of, threads here is probably the best definition of “expectations low”. If this site, or any others like it, makes anyone think twice about bunk, then it has been worthwhile.
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