Correcting vaccine misinformation: A failure to replicate familiarity or fear-driven backfire effects

Ullrich K.H. Ecker, Caitlin X.M. Sharkey, Briony Swire-Thompson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


Individuals often continue to rely on misinformation in their reasoning and decision making even after it has been corrected. This is known as the continued influence effect, and one of its presumed drivers is misinformation familiarity. As continued influence can promote misguided or unsafe behaviours, it is important to find ways to minimize the effect by designing more effective corrections. It has been argued that correction effectiveness is reduced if the correction repeats the to-be-debunked misinformation, thereby boosting its familiarity. Some have even suggested that this familiarity boost may cause a correction to inadvertently increase subsequent misinformation reliance; a phenomenon termed the familiarity backfire effect. A study by Pluviano et al. (2017) found evidence for this phenomenon using vaccine-related stimuli. The authors found that repeating vaccine “myths” and contrasting them with corresponding facts backfired relative to a control condition, ironically increasing false vaccine beliefs. The present study sought to replicate and extend this study. We included four conditions from the original Pluviano et al. study: the myths vs. facts, a visual infographic, a fear appeal, and a control condition. The present study also added a “myths-only” condition, which simply repeated false claims and labelled them as false; theoretically, this condition should be most likely to produce familiarity backfire. Participants received vaccine-myth corrections and were tested immediately post-correction, and again after a seven-day delay. We found that the myths vs. facts condition reduced vaccine misconceptions. None of the conditions increased vaccine misconceptions relative to control at either timepoint, or relative to a pre-intervention baseline; thus, no backfire effects were observed. This failure to replicate adds to the mounting evidence against familiarity backfire effects and has implications for vaccination communications and the design of debunking interventions.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0281140
JournalPLoS One
Issue number4 April
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2023


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