#CamFest Speaker Spotlight

Professor Sander van der Linden

Social psychologist Sander van der Linden will be in conversation with political neuroscientist Leor Zmigrod on 20th March  7.30-8.30pm about their work on understanding what causes people to turn to political extremism and tackling the virus of misinformation. Professor van der Linden has a new book out this year, FOOLPROOF: Why we fall for misinformation and how to build immunity.

Why does your research matter?

I try to do research that is in the public interest. For example, the spread of dangerous misinformation can lead to physical harm - even death in some cases - undermine public health efforts, erode trust in science and democracy, and interfere with elections so I think this research topic inherently matters to people because they understand its relevance to society.

Sum up the main thesis of your book in a paragraph

The main thesis of the book is that misinformation acts much like a virus, hijacking our thoughts, altering our basic perceptions of the world and even infiltrating our memories of events. It also spreads like a virus, which we know because we use models from epidemiology to understand how fake news spreads in social networks. Of course, this then begs the question whether it is possible to vaccinate or inoculate people against misinformation by exposing them to a severely weakened dose of it? The short answer is ‘yes’ and that’s what most of our research and the book is about: demonstrating that people can be made more immune to misinformation through the new science of ‘prebunking’, i.e. it’s all about pre-emptively neutralizing the techniques of misinformation.*

*without telling people what they need to believe!

How important is it to reach outside of academia?

Really important! When you leave the Ivory Tower, that’s when you learn about what problems need solving. We wouldn’t have been able to trial and test our interventions at-scale if we didn’t have opportunities to work with governments, public health authorities, and social media and technology companies to evaluate the effectiveness of this approach outside of the laboratory. Moreover, it’s also feedback from people from all walks of life that helps us improve our science and efforts!

What do people most struggle with in terms of distinguishing between fake news and actual news?

What I think most people struggle with is not actually spotting what’s obviously fake (for example, most people don’t believe that the earth is flat) but rather, identifying subtle manipulation that is present in news media. For example, an article might not be fake outright but it might use a particular misinformation or manipulation technique (such as triggering negative emotions or using polarizing language) to get people riled up, especially on hot-button issues. We all have biases, so manipulators can exploit those using what I refer to in the book as ‘The Six Degrees of Manipulation”.

This is likely to get more complicated with eg deep fakes. How early do you think we should start addressing our ability to spot fake news from real news - and is it too late for some?

Yes right now! The earlier the better in terms of building resilience. Just as the body benefits from seeing many copies of potential invaders in order to mount an effective immune response, it works the same way with the brain. In fact, we’re currently trying to figure out ways to help people spot deep fakes and inoculate against deep fake technology.  

How many countries has your news literacy game now been promoted in?

Well over 20 countries now!

Have people's attitudes to it varied according to the country?

In Europe and the Anglosphere, we haven’t found substantial variation, but some of the interventions we have done elsewhere, for example, in Rural India, have led us to re-think and adapt our approach because people’s understanding of news and media and their attitudes and experience with social media are just so different. So yes, cultural sensitivity is important.

You've been called the 'Defence against the Dark Arts' teacher. Which Harry Potter character do you most identify with?

I’m not sure if I’m ready to reveal this, but I think I personally identify with Ravenclaw or Gryffindor, though the online sorting hat hasn’t consistently sorted me 😉