How public servants can use behavioural insights to combat misinformation

By Shannon Jenkins

August 17, 2020


The NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet’s Behavioural Insights Unit has released a guide to help public servants address damaging myths and misinformation online.

The resource specifically targets public servants whose roles may involve tackling the growing prevalence of misinformation, particularly as customers are increasingly expecting governments to ensure they are well informed about potential threats, according to the BIU.

“To be a truly customer-centric government, all public servants — especially those working in communications, community engagement and front-line services — need to understand how myths spread and how to combat the negative impacts of misinformation,” it says.

The guide presents five strategies for myth-busting using behavioural insights.

Teach misinformation techniques. The BIU notes that people who practised common strategies for manipulating news stories for 15 minutes were better at detecting fake news headlines than those who had not. This is because people are better at resisting misinformation if they understand how they might be deceived. Public servants can “vaccinate” people against misinformation by showing them the methods used to create and spread the misinformation, the guidance states.

Focus on facts, not myths. The BIU says bureaucrats should attempt to increase people’s familiarity with key facts in a simple and accessible format, such as using icons to present statistics.

“Presenting too much information on the myth can reinforce false beliefs because people tend to mistake familiarity with truth. Equally, factual information should be detailed but not complex as this can lead people to prefer the easy-to-understand myth over the truth,” it says.

“To weaken the persistence of false beliefs, ask your audience to participate in the development of counterarguments to the misinformation.”

Reinforce personal adequacy by giving the audience a self-affirmation task to complete before showing them a debunking message. Asking people to select their most important values and describe times when they demonstrated those values can make the truth less threatening to a person’s self-worth, the guide says, noting that a US study found people who completed such a task before reading evidence that challenged their views on capital punishment were more likely to change their mind.

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Use a trusted messenger. Trust is often more important than expertise, according to the BIU. For example, a doctor may be an expert but not seen as trustworthy if they are sponsored by a drug company. Public servants should identify and utilise a trusted messenger to deliver facts to their target audience.

Replace myth with explanation. The human mind organises information into “mental models” to make sense of problems quickly, which means that myths can be hard to forget if it’s the first piece of information heard. Government agencies should attempt to be the first source of new information, “reducing opportunities for a myth to become the basis of a mental model”, the guide notes.

“If the myth has already taken hold, provide an explanation to fill the gap left by the myth you have debunked. For example, rather than saying previous studies linking autism to vaccines are false, explain other causes of autism,” it says.

The BIU has encouraged public servants to test the strategies with a target audience first due to a limited evidence base, and has released an additional guide on how to test whether an behaviour change intervention works.

Evidence used to address misinformation must also be accurate and easily accessible for the target audience, and agencies should consider changing behaviour before changing minds, the BIU says.

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