Short animations giving viewers a taste of the tactics behind misinformation can help to “inoculate” people against harmful content on social media when deployed on YouTube.

This is among the findings from a major online experiment led by the University of Cambridge, working with Jigsaw, a unit within Google dedicated to tackling threats to open societies.

A team of psychologists from the universities of Cambridge and Bristol created 90-second clips designed to familiarise users with manipulation techniques such as scapegoating and deliberate incoherence.

This “prebunking” strategy pre-emptively exposes people to tropes at the root of malicious propaganda, so they can better identify online falsehoods regardless of subject matter.

Researchers behind the Inoculation Science project compare it to a vaccine: by giving people a “micro-dose” of misinformation in advance, it helps prevent them falling for it in future – an idea based on what social psychologist’s call “inoculation theory”.

The findings, published in Science Advances, come from seven experiments involving a total of almost 30 000 participants – including the first “real world field study” of inoculation theory on a social media platform – and show a single viewing of a film clip increases awareness of misinformation.

The videos introduce concepts from the “misinformation playbook”, illustrated with relatable examples from film and TV such as Family Guy or, in the case of false dichotomies, Star Wars (“Only a Sith deals in absolutes”).

“YouTube has well over 2-billion active users worldwide. Our videos could easily be embedded within the ad space on YouTube to prebunk misinformation,” says study co-author Prof Sander van der Linden, head of the Social Decision-Making Lab (SDML) at Cambridge, which led the work.

“Our research provides the necessary proof of concept that the principle of psychological inoculation can readily be scaled across hundreds of millions of users worldwide”

Lead author Dr Jon Roozenbeek from Cambridge’s SDML describes the team’s videos as “source agnostic”, avoiding biases people have about where information is from, and how it chimes – or not – with what they already believe.

“Our interventions make no claims about what is true or a fact, which is often disputed. They are effective for anyone who does not appreciate being manipulated,” he says.

“The inoculation effect was consistent across liberals and conservatives. It worked for people with different levels of education, and different personality types.”

Google is already harnessing the findings. At the end of August, Jigsaw will roll out a pre-bunking campaign across several platforms in Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic to get ahead of emerging disinformation relating to Ukrainian refugees.