Tl;DR: Prebunking is an effective strategy to combat misinformation. Prebunking makes people aware in advance that they might be misled and teaches folks ways to recognize misinformation at the get-go.
Prebunking, sometimes called attitudinal inoculation, alerts people in advance that misinformation and disinformation might be coming their way. Prebunking is an effective “heads up” for misinformation. This is a prevention strategy to keep folks from believing false or deceptive information and help build resilience against conspiratorial thinking.
Debunking, on the other hand, is a defensive strategy and requires you to clarify and point out misinformation after the fact. Debunking is a ton of work, especially since new misinformation pops up all the time. We prebunk so we don’t have quite so much to debunk.
Prebunking is also a chance to teach about common strategies that are used all the time to trick us. This includes racist or sexist tropes, frightening images and music, scapegoating, and whataboutisms. Prebunking sets the stage to get people looking for tricks so they are less likely to fall into those traps.
Interested in doing some prebunking yourself? Great! An easy prebunking strategy is the 2-step approach: explain the threat and then refute it. Let’s look at a hypothetical example. Let’s imagine that you know that there is a lot of misinformation in your community about the COVID-19 booster (that would NEVER happen, right? 😉). You have a conversation with friends and neighbors to help prebunk that looks like this: “You might see things online that pressure you not to get the COVID-19 booster. They make it sound like the booster will make you very sick with really scary pictures of sick kids and grandparents. Actually, the vaccine is very safe and helps prevent severe disease and hospitalization from COVID infection.” It is short, sweet, and to the point. It addresses the threat (online misinformation about boosters making people ill), identified how they are trying to trick you (using scary pictures that are emotionally manipulative), and then refutes that threat (points out factual information about vaccine safety).
Prebunking has been successfully used in messaging around alcohol use in teens, encouraging condom use for safe sex, getting vaccines, and understanding climate change. Prebunking is a great strategy to prevent misinformation from taking hold in the first place.
Stay safe. Stay well. Prebunk away!
Those Nerdy Girls
This is a neat study that shows that 30 second prebunking videos caused participants to be more likely to recognize rhetorical strategies, were less likely to want to share videos containing misinformation, and more willing to get the COVID-19 vaccine!
Psychology Today “What is Prebunking?” describes how gamification can play a role: