Communication Combat: Could Attitudinal Inoculation Help Government Fight Fake News?

– by Niall Cummins

The rise of disinformation and misinformation has been on the radar of governments, academics and the big tech giants for a number of years. Collectively referred to as information disorder, this harmful online content could have serious implications for the Australian community – and pose a threat to public health, our democratic institutions and our National Security. There has been a slow increase in regulatory accountability for the issue with the Australian Communication and Media Authority working with the peak body for digital companies – DIGI – to release an opt-in code of practice for social media companies earlier this year. Regulation is clearly part of the solution – but what else can be done to counter this growing threat?

Like all complex policy problems, the solution must be multi-faceted. The suppression of clearly harmful content for example must be considered. However, we know that no matter how strictly compliance is enforced, information disorder is still likely to slip through the cracks and circulate across online communities. Even if it was possible to ban all misinformation, the question of who gets to set the parameters of truth is of serious ethical concern, with potential for abuse. Assuming that individuals will be exposed to misinformation in the online informational ecosystem, what can we do to minimise the harm that this exposure might cause?

One response leverages the complex psychology which makes misinformation so potent in the first place. Attitudinal inoculation theory suggests that if an individual can be exposed to a watered down version of the ‘fake news’ which they are likely to encounter, which is then immediately debunked, they are more likely to critically engage with the real misinformation they encounter online.[1] In essence, they are ‘inoculated’ against harmful content through controlled exposure – in the same way that a vaccine trains the immune system to recognise and attack a virus.

The analogy is perhaps ironic given the swathe of disinformation and misinformation which swirls around medical vaccinations. Anti-vax conspiracies have the real potential to hamper public health campaigns such as Australia’s current COVID vaccine rollout. Putting aside the convenient parallels, in laboratory conditions attitudinal inoculation has been shown to be more effective than supportive messaging (messaging which does not introduce the misinformation at all) at conferring resistance to misinformation.[2]

Online misinformation is an emerging risk to the public sector’s ability to conduct its core business. Practically then, what does attitudinal inoculation theory mean for Governments seeking to take control of the information narrative and control this risk? It means that each portfolio – be it health, infrastructure or other – needs to develop strategically oriented communications plans which incorporate proactive monitoring and pre-empting of harmful, false narratives before they take a foothold in the mainstream. It is commonly said that misinformation circulates in an online echo chamber. In reality, echo chambers form the dry kindling which can accelerate misinformation through the general population. Government must scan the information environment and develop inoculating communications before a critical mass of individuals are exposed to that narrative.

The Commonwealth has shown signs that it is taking these lessons on board. The Department of Infrastructure, for example, proactively deployed communication based on the principles of inoculation after several pieces of 5G telecommunications infrastructure were damaged in the UK. A video entitled ‘Electromagnetic Energy and You’ raises a number of concerns that individuals may have about the effects of 5G and provides evidence-based answers to these questions.[3] This is a fantastic example of a Department which is aware of and an active participant in its portfolio’s informational ecosystem.

Attitudinal inoculation is one prong in the fight against information disorder and is by no means a one-size fits all solution. Some evidence suggests that it is better to expose as few individuals as possible to the misinformation, no matter what form it takes. Yet this idea assumes that the individual won’t come across the harmful content at all. Giving the community the tools to take a critical approach to the things that they read, watch or see online is a key strategy in gaining control of the struggle for truth and legitimacy in online communication. Government departments should integrate environmental scanning and proactive debunking into their communication strategies. The alternative is an unsafe online informational environment in which government messaging competes with unverified and sometimes malicious narratives which pose a real threat to Australia’s interests.

[1] van der Linden S, Leiserowitz A, Rosenthal S, et al. (2017) Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change. Glob Chall 1

[2] Banas JA and Rains SA. (2010) A Meta-Analysis of Research on Inoculation Theory. Communication Monographs 77: 281-311.

[3] Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities. (2020) Electromagnetic Energy and You. 5G and EME. YouTube,