Andy Kroll in Rolling Stone:
Sander van der Linden was working in his office at the University of Cambridge a few years ago when he received a strange phone call. A professor of social psychology and director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Laboratory, van der Linden is one of the world’s leading researchers on how to combat the scourge of disinformation and misinformation. He receives requests all the time about his work from government agencies, media organizations, and civil-society groups. But the person who called that day was not a bureaucrat or a diplomat. It was a representative from L’Oréal, the multi-billion-dollar global beauty product company. L’Oréal had what it called a “scientific disinformation” problem related to some of its products. Could van der Linden help?
At the heart of van der Linden’s research is a theory: Our information crisis can and should be treated like a virus. Responding to fake stories or conspiracy theories after the fact is woefully insufficient, just as post-infection treatments don’t compare to vaccines. Indeed, a growing body of social science suggests that fact-checks and debunkings do little to correct falsehoods after people have seen a piece of misinformation (the unintentional spread of misleading or false stories) or disinformation (the intentional spread of such a story with a purpose in mind). Van der Linden believes we can protect people against bad information through something akin to inoculation. A truth vaccine. He calls this tactic “prebunking.”