One of my responsibilities as an English teacher is to help my students build their media literacy skills. In the past couple of years, I have become increasingly convinced, in fact, that media literacy is the most essential skill English classes can cover. The deluge of disinformation and morass of misinformation out there is staggering. Throw in the challenges of deepfakes, and, well, it’s starting to get depressing, how difficult it is to evaluate the quality of information that comes across my feeds. For a long time, I’ve been using the Bad News Game in my classroom to help my adult learners understand how misinformation works. When I was approved via NetGalley to read an eARC of Foolproof: Why Misinformation Infects Our Minds and How to Build Immunity, I didn’t know at the time that Sander van der Linden was one of the researchers behind the game! It’s neat to hear him talk more about how the game was designed and other findings about fake news.
In the first part of the book, van der Linden discusses the current state of research into misinformation and how it affects us from a cognitive science point of view. Part 2 of the book look at the historical spread of misinformation, from ancient Rome to modern times, and introduces concepts like filter bubbles and echo chambers. Part 3 explains the concept that van der Linden and his team have been researching (building upon older research from the mid-twentieth century)—a psychological vaccine that inoculates us against misinformation. The Bad News Game is an example of such a vaccine in action.
My main takeaways from this book (some of which I already knew but which van der Linden explained in more detail): our brains are susceptible to misinformation because of cognitive biases we evolved to deal with environments far different from the ones we find ourselves in today; merely debunking or fact-checking misinformation is seldom very effective; pre-bunking or inoculating people against misinformation can be very effective, but the duration of that efficacy can be variable.
Some of what van der Linden says here might seem obvious to anyone with two brain cells to rub together. What makes Foolproof so valuable is the way that he grounds these perhaps obvious ideas in actual research stretching back decades. Reading this book reminded me of the incredible power of science: without this research, we would be in a much worse off place than we are today. This book gave me hope and made me more optimistic for our future. As grave a threat as misinformation plagues pose, there are solutions out there.
Although van der Linden briefly touches on the role of artificial intelligence (such as deepfakes) in the book, he doesn’t mention generative AI like ChatGPT. This is likely because the book went to press just before ChatGPT and its competitors launched into the limelight. How’s that for timing? While a great deal of what van der Linden says about spotting misinformation applies to these tools as well, I still have questions. ChatGPT and other large language models open up the door to the possibility of generating so much garbage online that accurate information diminishes simply by volume alone. I’m curious if this new dimension to misinformation spread affects van der Linden’s recommendations or his team’s findings at all.
Foolproof is a fascinating and edifying story of using science to push back against one of the most pressing issues in our modern society. Highly recommended for tech people, scholars, scientists, and anyone interested in how misinformation spreads and how we can fight it.