Foolproof by Sander van der Linden

14th March, 2023

Rukmani and her family were driving to a temple in Tamil Nadu, India, in May 2018, when they stopped to ask for directions from an elderly local lady. It seemed a safe enough thing to do.

The family hadn’t realised that almost every local with access to WhatsApp had been receiving dire warnings of “child lifters”, forwarded from group chat to group chat. The local lady thought these over-friendly strangers matched the description and raised the alarm. A crowd descended on the family car and began a vicious mob beating, which killed Rukmani and left the others close to death. Misinformation can be fatal.

There are plenty of people trying to fool us these days — and plenty of people happy to be fooled. Sander van der Linden, a professor of social psychology at Cambridge university, has been studying the problem for years, and promises to help us “build immunity” to misinformation.

This is a noble goal. But why are we susceptible to misinformation? As Foolproof (US) (UK) explains, there are many answers to that question. Consider the “illusory truth effect”, discovered in the 1970s. If you ask people to evaluate the truth or falsehood of a series of statements, such as “potassium is the lightest of all metals” or “Lake Superior is the largest lake in the world”, then they are more likely to rate statements as true if they’ve seen them before. Familiar statements feel true. This is an unfortunate cognitive shortcut; neither example statement is true, and alas you may now start to feel otherwise.

The illusory truth effect is an instructive example of the perils of fighting misinformation. It is all too easy for journalists, educators and fact-checkers to amplify and reinforce falsehoods while attempting to debunk them. But the illusory truth effect is just one of dozens of factors to consider in understanding misinformation and disinformation. “Identity-protective cognition”, for example, where we place a higher value on defending our place in a social group than on discovering the truth, and “nano-targeted dark posts”, where some political campaign uses your psychological profile to show you a Facebook advert designed for you and you alone. Some of these factors are as old as human nature, and some are as new as the latest app.

There is a great deal to chew over here, and the good news is that Foolproof provides an overview that is authoritative, comprehensive and chatty. You won’t find a better survey of what is now a vast interdisciplinary landscape, and that alone is a great service.

The bad news is that the attempt to replace academic obfuscations with clear, compelling prose is not wholly successful. Van der Linden’s use of parentheses is sometimes (hard) to parse. His “helpful schema” on page 36 was beyond my understanding and contains terms which seem important but do not appear in the index. He is also too fond of recounting the occasions on which he or his ideas were featured in important places with important people.

Still, what really matters is whether his “psychological vaccine against fake news” is effective. Foolproof offers a range of ideas for fighting misinformation, but places most emphasis on the technique for which van der Linden is best known: inoculation against lies. The idea is to “pre-bunk” the false claim by mentioning it and warning against it in advance. This is not a completely new idea, but van der Linden makes a persuasive case that it works, it lasts, and it is practical. For example, YouTube could run pre-bunking messages ahead of conspiratorial videos in the spot usually reserved for adverts.

Those hoping for silver bullets will be disappointed. Could Rukmani’s life have been saved by technical changes which slowed down the rate at which WhatsApp messages were shared? Maybe. Foolproof explains that such changes are “useful”, four pages after warning that they are “rarely sufficient”.

That is a frustrating equivocation; it’s also true. In the battle against misinformation, tools which are useful but rarely sufficient may be all we can expect.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 22 February 2023.

My first children’s book, The Truth Detective is now out (not US or Canada yet – sorry).

I’ve set up a storefront on Bookshop in the United States and the United Kingdom. Links to Bookshop and Amazon may generate referral fees.

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