Inoculating Against the Spread of Islamophobic and Radical-Islamist Disinformation

Misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda are core components of radicalisation and extremism and apply equally to Islamist radicalisation and the generation of Islamophobia.

One method of countering disinformation is to inoculate the information consumer. Theoretically, inoculation should equip individuals with the ability to critically assess and refute misinformation/disinformation by revealing the general flaws in misleading communications before exposure.

This study, involving over 500 participants, examined the effectiveness of inoculating participants against Islamophobic and radical-Islamist disinformation.

Participants in the experimental (inoculation) condition watched a training video that explained common rhetorical markers of radical-Islamist and Islamophobic disinformation without, however, mentioning Islam at all. The control group watched a video about an unrelated topic.

Participants were then exposed to one of two scripted ‘target’ videos that constituted a potential entry point for either Islamist or Islamophobic radicalisation. The linguistically matched target scripts utilised three misleading techniques (hasty generalisations, polarisation. and invoking emotion).

The analysis showed that participants who received the inoculation procedure displayed less agreement with the target video content, perceived the video as less reliable, and were less likely to share it in comparison to participants in the control group.

The inoculation findings are equally relevant to combating Islamophobia and Islamist extremism and provide an alternative approach to more conventional counter-messaging campaigns.

In the present study, the training video did not mention Islam or any issues related to radicalisation. The video nonetheless successfully inoculated people against being misled by two diametrically opposed radicalising positions. It follows that inoculation messages may be effective without the problems that may beset some other counter-messaging programs: neither lack of domain knowledge nor stigmatisation are likely to derail inoculation.

Overall, the results provide support for the use of inoculation in combating extremist messages and demonstrates the potential success of using inoculation to make people more resilient to extremist disinformation.

It should be noted, however, that the study did not measure the duration of the inoculation effect, nor compare inoculation to fact-checking or corrections. Future research could address these and other issues such as the effectiveness of inoculation in specific groups who are likely targets of extremists such as adolescents.

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Stephan Lewandowsky, University of Bristol
Muhsin Yesilada, University of Bristol

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