Addressing myths and misinformation using behavioural insights

13 August 2020

Categoriesbehaviour change, policy

Tagsbehaviour change, behavioural insights, digital

BIU has a new guide on how to addresses myths and misinformation using behavioural insights. We offer practical suggestions for public servants – especially those working in communications, community engagement and front-line services –to understand how myths spread and how to combat the negative impacts of misinformation.

Addressing myths and misinformation using behavioural insights

62% of Australians are concerned about the reliability of online information, yet they are less likely than citizens from most other major countries to use fact-checking techniques.

As we face increasingly complex challenges – from bush fires to pandemics – customers are looking to government to ensure they are not vulnerable to accepting and acting on myths and misinformation. They also expect government to balance myth-busting interventions with freedom of expression and speech.

BIU’s new guide on How to address myths and misinformation using behavioural insights offers practical suggestions for government. However, the evidence base for what works, especially in the NSW context, is still limited so it’s important to test these strategies with your target audience. This is easy to do with our short guide on How to test whether your behaviour change intervention works.

One of the challenges for government is how quickly misinformation spreads. The average person spends 2 hours and 23 minutes per day on social media and it’s technologically possible to share misinformation with millions of people with a simple click.

Unfortunately, corrections to misinformation do not spread very well. For example, a mistake that appeared in a leaked draft of a World Health Organization report stated that many people in Greece who had HIV had infected themselves in an attempt to get welfare benefits. The WHO put out a correction, but the initial mistake reached far more people than the correction did.

Another key challenge for government is how humans think. Experts believe that the spread of misinformation will get worse because:

  1. Humans have a preference for comfort and convenience, so they look for information that fits their belief systems; and
  2. Our brains are not wired for the sheer volume of information we must manage, so we tune out or turn to entertainment as a coping mechanism.

While many governments around the world are taking strong action to combat misinformation – from setting up dedicated misinformation units, to legislating against online misinformation – behavioural science also has a lot to offer. It can be used to equip citizens with the tools to deal with misinformation when they are exposed, which research suggests may be affecting around half the adult population.

BIU’s new DIY guide on How to address myths and misinformation using behavioural insights is available to download here. It covers five key strategies:

  1. Teach misinformation techniques by showing people the methods used to create and spread misinformation.
  2. Focus on facts, not myths by increasing people’s familiarity with key facts in a simple and accessible format.
  3. Reinforce personal adequacy by getting people to think about how they live out their values (self-affirmation) before exposing them to a debunking message.
  4. Use a trusted messenger for your audience to speak about the facts.
  5. Replace myth with explanation to fill the gap left by the myth you have debunked.

Customers today expect government to ensure they are well informed about any threats they face. 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. BIU’s guide on myth-busting helps public servants to deliver on the NSW Customer Commitments, acting with empathy and making it easy for customers to access what they need.

Learn more on our guide.