After seeing promising results in Eastern Europe, Google will launch a new campaign in Germany that aims to make people more resilient to the corrosive effects of online misinformation.
The tech giant plans to release a series of short videos exposing common techniques for many misleading claims. The videos will appear as advertisements in Germany on platforms such as Facebook, YouTube or TikTok. A similar campaign is working in India as well.
It’s an approach called prebanking, in which people are taught to detect false claims before they encounter them. The strategy is gaining support among researchers and tech companies.
“There’s a real hunger for solutions,” said Beth Goldberg, head of research and development at Jigsaw, an incubator division of Google that studies emerging social challenges. “Using ads as a vehicle to combat disruptive technology is very new. And we’re excited about the results.”
While belief in lies and conspiracy theories is nothing new, the speed and reach of the internet has given them a higher power. Triggered by algorithms, misleading claims can discourage people from getting vaccinated, spread authoritarian propaganda, sow distrust of democratic institutions, and incite violence.
It’s a challenge with some easy solutions. Journalistic fact checks are effective, but they are labor-intensive, not read by everyone, and won’t convince those already distrustful of traditional journalism. Content moderation by tech companies is another response, but it only feeds misinformation elsewhere, prompting cries of censorship and bias.
In contrast, prebanking videos are relatively cheap and easy to make and can be viewed by millions of people when placed on popular platforms. They avoid the political challenge entirely by focusing on the topics of false claims, which are often cultural lightning rods, but on the techniques that make viral misinformation so contagious.
Those techniques include fear-mongering, scapegoating, false comparisons, exaggeration, and missing context. Whether the topic is COVID-19, mass shootings, immigration, climate change or elections, misleading claims often rely on one or more of these tactics to exploit emotion and short-circuit critical thinking.
Last fall, Google launched its biggest test of the theory yet with a prebanking video campaign in Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The video analyzes a variety of techniques seen in false claims about Ukrainian refugees. Many of those claims relied on alarmist and unsubstantiated stories about refugees committing crimes or taking away jobs from residents.
These videos were viewed 38 million times on Facebook, TikTok, YouTube and Twitter – a number equal to the majority of the population of all three countries. The researchers found that compared to those who did not watch the videos, watchers were more likely to be able to identify misinformation techniques, and less likely to spread false claims to others.
The pilot project was the largest test of prebanking to date and adds to the growing consensus in support of the theory.
“This is good news when it comes to misinformation, which is essentially bad news,” said Alex Mahadevan, director of MediaWise, the Poynter Institute’s media literacy initiative. Brazil, Spain, France and the US
Mahadevan described the strategy as “a very efficient way to address misinformation at scale, because you can reach a lot of people at the same time addressing a wide range of misinformation.”
Google’s new campaign in Germany will include a focus on photos and videos, and the ease with which they can be presented as evidence of something wrong. An example: Last week, after the earthquake in Turkey, some social media users shared a video of a massive explosion in Beirut in 2020, claiming that it was actually footage of a nuclear explosion triggered by the earthquake. This was not the first time the 2020 eruption had been the subject of misinformation.
Google will announce its new German campaign on Monday ahead of next week’s Munich security conference. The timing of the announcement, ahead of that annual gathering of international security officials, reflects heightened concerns among both tech companies and government officials about the impact of misinformation.
Tech companies love prebanking because it avoids sensitive topics that are easily politicised, said Cambridge University professor Sander van der Linden, considered a leading expert on the theory. Van der Linden worked with Google on its campaign and is now also advising Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram.
Meta has included prebanking in several different media literacy and anti-misinformation campaigns in recent years, the company told The Associated Press in an emailed statement.
These include a 2021 program in the US that provided media literacy training about COVID-19 to Black, Latino and Asian American communities. Participants who took the training were later tested and found to be more resistant to misleading COVID-19 claims.
Prebanking has its challenges. The video’s effects eventually wear off, necessitating the use of “booster” videos from time to time. Also, videos must be well-crafted to capture the viewer’s attention, and tailored to different languages, cultures, and demographics. And like a vaccine, it is not 100% effective for everyone.
Google found that its campaign in Eastern Europe varied from country to country. While the effects of the videos were highest in Poland, they had “a much smaller effect” in Slovakia, the researchers found. One possible explanation: the video was dubbed into the Slovak language, and was not specifically intended for a local audience.
But along with traditional journalism, content moderation and other methods of combating misinformation, prebanking can help communities reach a kind of herd immunity, limiting the spread and impact of misinformation.
“You can think of misinformation as a virus. It spreads. It stays put. It can compel people to act in certain ways,” van der Linden told the AP. “Some people develop symptoms, some don’t. So: if it spreads and acts like a virus, maybe we can figure out how to vaccinate people.