Learn how to debunk news stories in just 20 minutes

Navigating the treacherous digital information ecology in an era of misinformation is certainly a challenge. Credible news, misunderstandings and lies mix when important topics like the pandemic and politics are presented and debated. A growing number of studies highlight how people, and not least young people, struggle to separate credible online news from misleading information, and identify manipulated images and deep fake videos. But there is also some good news about fake news coming from research. Inoculating against some manipulative online strategies is possible by educational interventions. Playing games may actually help us better identify misinformation about Covid-19 and politics. [games available here: Get Bad News; Harmony Square; Go Viral!]. A small dose of disinformation and walking in the shoes of the misleader may strengthen our intellectual defense against the very strategies used to mislead citizens in digital environments. This type of intervention is often labeled prebunking, because it is a preparation for debunking. But debunking is complex. Prebunking is important but not a silver bullet.

Debunking information in clever ways is a mix of knowledge, skills and attitudes. It seems like we as citizens need some help when determining credibility of well-made misinformation. New technology can be used to mislead, but also support citizens digital verification processes. A combination of intellectual and technical tools – technocognition – may be necessary when the naked eye cannot see how images and videos have been manipulated. We have found that it is possible to learn this clever way of navigating information, in line with how fact-checkers use lateral reading when they verify if information is reliable . In our study ”Learning How to Separate Fake From Real News: Scalable Digital Tutorials Promoting Students’ Civic Online Reasoning” we designed a self-test, the News Evaluator, with a built in feedback and tutorial, and we now have evidence from two experiments with randomized control groups that it is possible to learn debunking strategies in just 20 minutes (more about the study). [self-test available here]. Especially participants learning to use the combination of intellectual strategies and digital resources performed better after this short intervention. A positive result from this study was the fact that not only did participants become better at evaluating fake news, they also learned to better appreciate unbelievable but true news. And trust in credible news is central in a world of disinformation. Learning to think that everything is fake is a real threat to democracy. Thus, we are happy to note that this type of backfire effect does not come from the prebunking and debunking studies mentioned here. And in the case of the News Evaluator we find that the opposite is true.

We have also used state-of-the-art verification tools designed to support professional fact-checkers and journalists in ordinary classrooms across Europe. In the design-based study “Combatting Visual Fake News with a Professional Fact-Checking Tool in Education in France, Romania, Spain and Sweden” we used the plug-in InvidWeVerify to support teenagers technocognition  (more about the study). We find that what may seem like complicated digital tools can, with proper educational support, be used to debunk well-made fake images and videos. [educational materials available in the Tool kit here]. In a time when almost anyone can manipulate images and videos we all need to know what to do when in doubt if something is true or not. And we see that this can be learned.

Educational interventions with a focus on technocognition, prebunking and debunking is of course not a quick fix to all the challenges of disinformation that we face today. But the evidence-based methods found useful in this research highlights that it is possible to design scalable interventions that can support key aspects of media literacy across cultures.


Thomas Nygren

Associate Professor, Department of Education, Uppsala University

Further reading:

Axelsson, C.-A. W., Guath, M., & Nygren, T. (2021). Learning How to Separate Fake From Real News: Scalable Digital Tutorials Promoting Students’ Civic Online Reasoning. Future Internet, 13(3 60), 1-18. Retrieved from https://www.mdpi.com/1999-5903/13/3/60

Basol, M., Roozenbeek, J., Berriche, M., Uenal, F., McClanahan, W. P., & Linden, S. v. d. (2021). Towards psychological herd immunity: Cross-cultural evidence for two prebunking interventions against COVID-19 misinformation. Big Data & Society, 8(1), 20539517211013868. doi:10.1177/20539517211013868

Breakstone, J., M., S., S., W., A., R., J., C., M., G., & Saavedra, A. (2019). Students’ civic online reasoning: a national portrait. Retrieved from https://purl.stanford.edu/gf151tb4868

Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U. K. H., & Cook, J. (2017). Beyond Misinformation: Understanding and Coping with the “Post-Truth” Era. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 6(4), 353-369. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2017.07.008

Lewandowsky, S., & Yesilada, M. (2021). Inoculating Against The Spread Of Islamophobic And Radical-Islamist Disinformation. Retrieved from University of Bristol: https://crestresearch.ac.uk/resources/inoculating-against-the-spread-of-islamophobic-and-radical-islamist-disinformation/

Nygren, T., & Guath, M. (2021). Students Evaluating and Corroborating Digital News. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 1-17. doi:10.1080/00313831.2021.1897876

Nygren, T., Guath, M., Axelsson, C.-A. W., & Frau-Meigs, D. (2021). Combatting Visual Fake News with a Professional Fact-Checking Tool in Education in France, Romania, Spain and Sweden. Information, 12(5), 201. Retrieved from https://www.mdpi.com/2078-2489/12/5/201

Roozenbeek, J., & van der Linden, S. (2019). Fake news game confers psychological resistance against online misinformation. Palgrave Communications, 5(1), 1-10.

Roozenbeek, J., & van der Linden, S. (2020). Breaking Harmony Square: A game that “inoculates” against political misinformation. The Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review.

Roozenbeek, J., van der Linden, S., & Nygren, T. (2020). Prebunking interventions based on “inoculation” theory can reduce susceptibility to misinformation across cultures. Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, 1(2).

Wineburg, S., & McGrew, S. (2017). Lateral Reading: Reading Less and Learning More When Evaluating Digital Information. Retrieved from https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=3048994


The News Evaluator project was funded by Vinnova, grant number 2018-01279 (http://nyhetsvarderaren.se/in-english/)

The YouCheck! project, was funded by the European Commission programme Media Education for All, 2019–2020 (http://project-youcheck.com/)