- How Science Works
- Sources and Experts: Where to Find Them and How to Vet Them
- Making Sense of Science Stats
- Editing for Story
- Editing Controversial Science
- Holding Science to Account
- Covering Health Care
- Climate and the Environment
- Fact-Checking Science Journalism: How to Make Sure Your Stories Are True
Illustrating Complex Science Stories
- The Role of Visuals in Science Journalism
- The Process of Building Science-Centric Graphics
- Strategies for Using Visuals to Put Breaking Science in Context
- Special Considerations for Data Visualization
- Uncertainty and Misinformation
- Editorial Illustration, Photography, and Moving Images
- Additional Reading and Resources
- About the Author
- Social Media and Reader Engagement
- Popular Science
- Op-Eds and Essays
- About This Handbook
Inoculation, or ‘Prebunking’
By Yasmin Tayag / < 1
Much like a vaccine uses a weakened form of a virus to protect the body against infection, exposing people to a weakened form of misinformation has been shown to help them become less vulnerable. This idea is called “inoculation,” or “prebunking.” Incorporating it in stories can help readers build up their ability to think critically.
Inoculation has two parts: a warning about the threat of being misled, and a correction to the misinformation. To illustrate, when I wrote about ‘Virus Shut Out’ necklaces, which falsely purported to protect wearers from Covid-19, I cautioned readers that these scam products were marketed widely despite being banned in many countries. The chlorine dioxide inside them, I explained, is useless against viral spread. Prebunking has also been used in climate-change reporting, to note that fossil-fuel companies have previously funded climate-denial messaging, and to point out the scientific consensus is that climate change is real. The “truth” campaign against teen smoking, considered one of the most successful public-health campaigns, was built on warnings about deceptive marketing from the tobacco industry.
Prebunking is useful for two reasons: It gives people a rational framework to hold onto, and it warns people that others may be trying to mislead them. Most of the effect of prebunking comes from the latter, says Cook. It’s effective because everyone, regardless of worldview, wants to avoid being misled.
Unfortunately, bad actors use inoculation for their misinformation and science-denial purposes, too. Fringe sites tend to do so in a nonspecific way, making statements like “It’s all lies” or “Don’t trust the media.” “It’s very destructive, broad-band inoculation that just makes people cynical and disbelieving in everything,” says Cook. And as the increasing polarization of audiences indicates, it can be a very powerful tool.