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In a battle to tackle misinformation, Google is expanding on a new initiative called “prebunking”.

The tech giant aims to release short videos which highlight the techniques that are commonly used whenever misleading information is put out on to the internet.

The videos are set to appear as adverts and will be put out on platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, or TikTok.

After seeing positive results during a trial in Eastern Europe, the campaign is now being expanded to Germany, potentially laying the groundwork for it to come to other countries in future.

So, what is prebunking?

We’ve probably all heard of the term debunking (exposing a claim that is false).

Well, prebunking involves teaching individuals how to spot those false claims before encountering them.

But what does that mean?

“You can think of misinformation as a virus,” says Sander van der Linden, a University of Cambridge professor.

“It spreads. It lingers. It can make people act in certain ways.”

He compared the goal of prebunking to the goal of a vaccine, to stop it from spreading and in this case help people sieve through what may be real or false.

Beth Goldberg, head of research and development at Jigsaw, a Google division focused on social challenges, says “there’s real appetite” for novel solutions.

“And we’re excited about the results,” she added.

What exactly is Google doing?

Google’s prebunking videos are short and easy to produce and could be seen by millions of users when placed on popular social media platforms.

The company hopes they can help contain inaccurate information that often creates fear, scapegoating, false comparisons and exaggeration.

To test the theory, Google began a campaign last year in Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The videos showed different techniques seen in false claims about Ukrainian refugees.

The claims relied on fake stories which showed refugees committing crimes or taking jobs away from locals.

Google’s videos were streamed 38 million times across Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter.

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The weapon of disinformation

Will prebunking really help tackle fake news?

From online trolls to conspiracy theorists, the internet is no doubt home to plenty of misinformation.

It can be found in comments, videos, images and beyond.

Many platforms try to screen and monitor user-generated content, with certain rules and guidelines in place.

The COVID pandemic was a driving force behind the push for a solution like prebunking.

Across social media, many people claimed that the virus simply did not exist, while others posted false content regarding the vaccine and its effects.

Different platforms took different approaches, from flagging COVID-related content with authorised health advice and links to resources (a tactic employed by the likes of Spotify and YouTube), to deleting posts.

However, these approaches could just drive misinformation elsewhere – and have also been criticised by some as a means of censorship. Twitter, meanwhile, dropped its anti-COVID misinformation policy last year.

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How do you make a misinformation vaccine?

But it is hoped that prebunking – less of a brute-force bid to crack down on misinformation and more an attempt to tackle the root cause – will prove more effective.

Researchers concluded that people who saw Google’s videos were most likely to be able to identify misinformation, and were less likely to spread false claims to others.

The expanded campaign in Germany will include a focus on photos and videos – all the more important at times of disasters like the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.

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