Oct 27, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Pre-bunking rises ahead of the 2020 election

Illustration of magnifying glass over a binary background that reveals a checkmark

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Tech platforms are no longer satisfied with debunking falsehoods — now they're starting to invest in efforts that preemptively show users accurate information to help them counter falsehoods later on.

Why it matters: Experts argue that pre-bunking can be a more effective strategy for combating misinformation than fact-checking. It's also a less polarizing way to address misinformation than trying to apply judgements to posts after they've been shared.

  • "Research shows that the best time to give people accurate information is the first time they see or interact with a claim. By definition fact-checking is after the fact," said NewsGuard co-founder and former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz.

Driving the news: Twitter on Monday said it would start pinning notices to the top of all U.S. Twitter users’ timelines warning about misinformation on mail-in voting.

  • Other tech companies like Facebook and Snapchat have invested millions in voter information campaigns.

The big picture: Experts say pre-bunking doesn't play into the hands of bad actors who try to weaponize fact-checks as proof of bias.

  • "The benefit of pre-bunking is people see a label or post indicating why the source may not be trustworthy, not the article itself," says Crovitz.
  • Facebook and Twitter recently found themselves tangled in a controversy around making judgement calls when both decided to take swift action against a New York Post story about Hunter Biden.
  • While Facebook had been educating the press about "hack and leak" campaigns that the story mirrored, tech companies generally have't really explained the phenomenon to users yet, causing confusion about why the post was removed.

Be smart: Australian psychologist and professor Stephan Lewandowsky has found that for certain conspiracy theories, like anti-vaccination, pre-bunkings "have been found to be more effective than debunking" after-the-fact.

Between the lines: Tech companies have long experimented with labeling misinformation as false, and adding fact-checks to disputed content. But those actions sometimes elicit unintended effects.

  • In 2017, Facebook said it would no longer use "Disputed Flags" — red flags next to articles — to identify fake news for users, after academic research it conducted found that the flags often had the reverse effect of making people want to click even more.
  • Instead, it began using related articles to give people more context about a story.
  • While some experts believe that platforms should do more pre-bunking, others worry that pre-bunking, if not done correctly, could accidentally cause users to be exposed to misinformation more than they would've organically.

The bottom line: Weighing when and how to pre-bunk conspiracies will be the next big challenge for tech companies.

  • "One of the great challenges of misinformation is that it can travel around internet long before fact-checkers can identify the story as being false," says Crovitz,
Go deeper