Google expands its 'prebunking' campaign to fight fake news in Europe

Google wants to use a technique called prebunking
Google wants to use a technique called prebunking Copyright Euronews #TheCube
By Sophia Khatsenkova
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The online search giant is hoping to "vaccinate" users against fake news by training them to recognise misinformation.


In a battle against fake news, Google is launching a new campaign across Europe. The tech giant plans to release short videos showing the mechanisms at play behind disinformation.

The videos will appear as advertisements on platforms like Facebook, YouTube or TikTok. 

These videos will be rolled out in Germany soon. A similar campaign in India is also in the works.

Google wants to use a technique called prebunking. You've probably already heard of debunking - revealing the inaccuracy of a claim - but what does prebunking mean exactly?

Think of disinformation and fake news as a disease that spreads among the population. Researchers want to contain the spread of these false claims among the population by inoculating them like a vaccine does.

In that way, prebunking could help reach a sort of herd immunity when it comes to false information, therefore limiting its impact, explained Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at Cambridge University who authored the new book Foolproof: Why We Fall for Misinformation and How to Build Immunity.

You preemptively try to refute a future falsehood or to take techniques that are used to dupe people online so they can build up mental antibodies
Sander van der Linden
Social psychologist, Cambridge University

"Pre-bunking is the opposite of debunking. It is a preemptive technique based on the idea of physiological inoculation," he told Euronews.

"So, just as vaccines expose people to a weakened dose of a virus to try to trigger the production of antibodies to help prevent future infection, you preemptively try to refute a future falsehood or to take techniques that are used to dupe people online so they can build up mental antibodies and in the future they are partly immune to disinformation".

Google had already launched a prebunking campaign last year in Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia focusing on false claims about Ukrainian refugees causing a housing crisis in these countries.

It was watched a whopping 38 million times - half of the population of the three countries concerned. 

Researchers found that compared to people who hadn’t seen the videos, those who did watch them were less likely to spread false claims.

But there can be downfalls to prebunking, according to van der Linden. 

"Sometimes I worry social media companies see this as an excuse to not take down content or not to pursue regulation," he said. 

"It shouldn't be the case that it becomes a replacement for taking down harmful content or implementing measures that improve the algorithm or change the incentives on social media". 

Euronews reached out to Google for comment but did not receive a response by the time this article was published. 

The other important issue is getting viewers' attention as well as demographic and cultural differences. The videos are only effective for those who have watched the whole segment - a challenge when attention spans are getting shorter and shorter on social media. 

And just like vaccines, the effects of prebunking wear off with time and the approach loses its effectiveness if social media users aren't "boosted" regularly, according to van der Linden's research. 

However, experts agree that prebunking should be one of the tools used to fight disinformation without neglecting other methods such as fact-checking. 


"Fact-checking is still absolutely necessary. They go hand-in-hand, and I worry that too much focus on prebunking, because it's easy/scalable, will end in blowback," tweeted Alex Mahadevan, director of MediaWise, a media literacy project launched by the Poynter Institute.

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