Effectiveness of Debunking Online

In a recent News Blog we looked at how users of Social Media Sites, such as Facebook, tend not to view information that disagrees with their own ideas.[1] This has been backed up by another recent study by Zollo et al. in PLoS One.[2] Here the authors examined the Facebook activity of 54 million users over five years, and compared how users who usually look at proven, scientific information, and those who look at unsubstantiated, conspiracy-like posts (i.e. not reported in the mainstream media) interacted with specific debunking posts. They found that such users generally existed in ‘echo chambers’, interacting primarily with either scientific or conspiracy-like posts and pages. The authors then focussed on a set of 50,220 debunking posts, and found that around 67% of ‘likes’ and 50% of comments for these pages came from the users who consumed proven information, while only 7% of ‘likes’ and 4% of comments came from those users who viewed unsubstantiated information. Interestingly, the comments made by both groups were mainly negative. Further analysis showed another interesting finding – users of the conspiracy echo chamber who did not interact with debunking posts were 1.76 times more likely to stop interacting with unsubstantiated news in the future – i.e. interacting with debunking posts was associated with an increased interest in unsubstantiated, conspiracy-like content.

The authors suggest that these results support the ‘inoculation theory’ – exposure to repeated, mild challenges to their beliefs leads people to become more resistant to change, even if latter arguments are stronger and more persuasive. Maybe a different approach is needed.

— Peter Chilton, Research Fellow


  1. Lilford RJ. It is Really True: Detailed Analysis Shows That Social Media Really Do Lead to Silo Thinking. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. June 23, 2017.
  2. Zollo F, Bessi A, Del Vicario M, et al. Debunking in a world of tribes. PLoS One. 2017; 12(7): e0181821.

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