The Power of Prebunking: Managing Disinformation in the Social Media Age

In recent years I’ve found myself doing more and more work in the area of countering misinformation – and disinformation – about organizations. As I’ve done so, I’ve found teams grappling with an interesting tension as they manage these issues in today’s social media-driven information environment.

Traditional crisis management principles dictate that in order to mitigate the impact of a crisis, it is generally important to avoid amplifying the issue or giving it more attention than it deserves. This is based on the idea that the more attention an issue receives, the more influential it becomes, the further it spreads and the more damage it can do to an organization’s reputation.

The traditional approach to dealing with disinformation has therefore been to debunk it after the fact, by pointing out the factual errors and correcting the record. However, recent research has shown that this approach can be less effective than prebunking, which involves inoculating against false information by sharing and refuting it before it is disseminated by the spreader.

The idea behind prebunking is simple: if you can get the truth out there before the disinformation is spread, you can limit the reach and impact of the false information. One of the main reasons for this shift in approach is the fact that disinformation is often designed to go viral, and can spread rapidly through social networks. By the time traditional crisis management techniques are deployed reactively, the damage may already have been done.

Problems with debunking

2022 study in the journal Science Advances summarized five key challenges that research has identified with debunking:

  1. Establishing what counts as factual information is difficult, particularly in some complex or contentious contexts.
  2. Fact-checks are unlikely to reach everyone who was exposed to the initial misinformation, as fake news travels farther and faster online than factual information.
  3. Debunking misinformation does not always nullify its effects (known as the continued influence effect).
  4. Getting people to believe fact-checks is challenging.
  5. Effective interventions are hard to scale.

Research supports a prebunking approach

In contrast, prebunking allows organizations to get ahead of the curve, proactively refuting false information before it has a chance to spread and do damage.

The effectiveness of prebunking as a strategy has been supported by several academic studies. The study above found that prebunking can be more effective than debunking in reducing the influence of misinformation. When people are exposed to a prebunk message before being presented with a false claim, they are more likely to reject the false claim than if they are presented with a debunk message after being exposed to the false claim.

Other studies have also found that prebunking can be more effective than debunking in reducing the spread of misinformation, particularly when it is combined with other strategies such as emphasizing the source of the information and providing clear, concise explanations.

Navigating the challenges

This approach is not without its risks, however. By actively engaging with and refuting disinformation, organizations do risk giving it more attention and potentially amplifying it further. This is especially true when it comes to highly controversial or divisive issues, where any action taken by an organization is likely to be met with backlash from one side or the other.

To mitigate this risk, it is important for organizations to carefully consider the implications of their actions and to be transparent about their intentions. For example, rather than simply refuting false information, organizations can provide context and explain why the information is false, while (when possible) also highlighting the sources of the potential disinformation and the motivations behind it.

Another key factor to consider is the credibility of the sources used to refute disinformation. In order to effectively prebunk false information, it is important to use reliable sources that are trusted by the public. This could include reputable news outlets, academic institutions, or independent fact-checking organizations. By using these types of sources, organizations can help to build trust with their audiences and demonstrate that they are committed to providing accurate and reliable information.

Additionally, prebunking may not always be appropriate in every situation. In some cases, it may be more effective to simply ignore the disinformation and let it fade away on its own.

There’s one more aspect here that I was just discussing with a colleague yesterday. Alongside targeted anti-mis/disinformation efforts, organizations need to be mapping out their areas of vulnerability, how those intersect from a ‘level of trust’ perspective with key stakeholders, and working proactively in parallel to build trust through the company’s actions in those areas.

Incorporating prebunking into anti-disinformation efforts

I’m not sure that any one of these things in isolation is sufficient. But for organizations who recognize they are at risk from mis- and disinformation, this three-layered approach on the back of a thorough risk assessment should lower risk much more effectively than debunking alone:

  1. Take proactive action to build trust in areas of high risk
  2. Prebunk high-risk narratives with key audiences to minimize their potential impact
  3. Debunk misinformation that still breaks through

The tension between traditional crisis management principles and the emerging research on prebunking is a complex issue and it requires nuance in navigating the right approach. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to be applied here. The fact remains, though, that it’s time to reconsider the blanket assumption that you simply shouldn’t repeat a negative.

Despite the challenges, prebunking is an important tool in the fight against disinformation and one that organizations should consider as part of their crisis management strategy. It’s not always easy to get the truth out there, but by being proactive and getting ahead of misinformation, organizations can protect their reputation and minimize the impact of a crisis.

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.