The politics of misinformation and disinformation (Part III)
The chapters in Part Ill analyse the politics of misinformation by examining transformations in public communication: namely, facticity and deception in relation to a range of contemporary topics and public debates. Many of the chapters define the problems of mis/disinformation and its misperceptions, discuss the causes, and then review potential antidotes. In the opening piece, Sarah Banet-Weiser (Chapter 20) analyses the relationship between misinformation and misogyny and shows how misogyny is often at the core of misinformation campaigns in which women become direct targets of attack. She argues that misogynistic information is similar to racism in being profitable for search engines as they both generate large amounts of web traffic. ‘Misogynistic misinformation campaigns do not represent a disruption or a crisis in everyday lives; rather, they represent the centrality and normalization of misogyny as a central part of that everyday life’. Eileen Culloty and Jane Suiter (Chapter 21) show how anti-immigrant disinformation has a long and worldwide history and how a diverse network of actors push anti-immigrant disinformation, bolstering and promoting anti-immigrant attitudes among the wider public. They argue that anti-immigrant disinformation can be viewed as part of a culture war in which an increasing transnational matrix of far-right, alt-right, populist, and conservative groups reinforce a common opposition to a pluralist worldview. Jeremy Levy, Kobin Bayes, Toby Bolsen, and Jamie Druckman (Chapter 22) summarise the research on scientific mis/disinformation and the challenges this poses for science communicators seeking to disseminate knowledge and for the implementation of government policies. They argue that the politicisation of science results in public distrust of scientific evidence and conspiratorial thinking (see also Chapters 28 and 29), especially when consensus information contradicts existing beliefs or positions on an issue. They show the possible corrections to misinformation and science politicisation, in order to enhance the positive impact that science can have on societies.
The following two chapters examine the ways in which governments and the military use disinformation to enhance their policies. Khys Crilley and Precious N. Chatterje-Doody (Chapter 23) trace the recent historical development and thinking around government mis/ disinformation in war and its connection with the development of new communication technologies such as the printing press, photography, cinema, television, the internet, and social media. They argue that new developments allow states to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of news and information. Crilley and Chatterje-Doody also show how concepts of propaganda, framing and strategic narratives, and discourse can be adopted to comprehend government disinformation during conflict. Kevin Foster (Chapter 24) discusses the changes in military disinformation from the second world war to the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Strategies have constantly changed in response to previous conflicts. Lessons supposedly learned are found wanting when new media developments scupper tactics previously deployed. Foster shows how disinformation is a key weapon used by the military and governments not only to fight their adversaries but also to win over and maintain the hearts and minds of their domestic audiences. Thomas Frissen, Leen d’Haenens, and Michael Opgenhaffen (Chapter 25) provide an overview of research on information disorders (e.g. take news and conspiracy theories — see also Chapters 10 and 28) and examine how extreme right actors have weaponised disinformation. They reflect upon and conceptually develop how the media ecosystem is instrumentalised by examining both social contagion and the algorithmic architecture of online communities that spread and mainstream their extreme-right worldviews, including those on anti-Semitism and white supremacy. The theme of information disorder is taken up by Svetlana Bodrunova (Chapter 26). Using propaganda as a case study, she examines the practices implemented in and by contemporary Russia. She argues that the practices are multi-faceted, with systemic misinformation targeted at internal audiences for populist purposes and outside Russia for international policy goals. These duel goals are a reflection of the complexities of the Russian media ecosystem, where troll activity and misinformation via mainstream media operate for both internal and external audiences. Jennifer Earl, Rina James, Elliot Ramo, and Sam Scovill (Chapter 27) show how social movements and protest have a long relationship with misinformation and disinformation, tracing them back to early theories of collective behaviour and pointing out the changes in the prevalence, patterns of production, spread, and consumption. They introduce five theoretical lenses for false information and social movements — false information as movement catalyst, disinformation and propaganda as repressive tools, false information as a weaponisation of free speech, false information as a commodity, and misinformation resulting from journalistic norms applied to protest.
Jaron Harambam (Chapter 28) poses the question of whether conspiracy theories are the result of a misinformed public or one wittingly believing false information. He asks how they are circulated in the media eco-system and why people follow forms of information often embraced by populists — distrust of institutions, distrust of knowledge/official truth, worldview/ ideology'. Who are the people who share and endorse these ideas? And should something be done to counter them — is debunking necessary? (See also Chapter 42.) Research on conspiracy theories is mostly rather serious business. It features the causes and consequences of a cultural phenomenon that is generally regarded a societal problem, and hence focuses too much on its dangers. This, he argues, obscures the affective and playful dimensions that are just as much part of conspiracy theories and points to this as a possible direction for future research. Conspiracy theory is one of the themes touched on by Catherine Baker and Andrew Chadwick (Chapter 29). They examine post-truth identities online by providing a conceptual framework for empirical research on the ideology of post-truth movements such as anti-vaxxers, flat-Earthers, and involuntary celibates. They argue that while cognitive biases, conspiracy mentalities, and the decline of trust in institutions are important roots of post-truth identities, digital and social media have played a role in enabling the construction and visibility of these identities and have made it easier for their adherents to connect with each other and sustain their knowledge, norms, and values. The final piece in Part III looks at the consumption of mis/disinformation.
Sophie Lecheler and Jana Egelhofer (Chapter 30) identify two dimensions of the consumption of misinformation and disinformation: namely, ‘real’ and ‘perceived’. The first is the result of the consequences of the consumption of misinformation for citizen attitudes, behaviors, and emotions in various contexts. The second concerns public worries about a ‘disinformation crisis’ causing widespread perceived consumption effects. Citizens are concerned about being manipulated by what they perceive as disinformation. Consequently, they change their news media diet. This perceived consumption effect is aided by frequent uses of the ‘fake news’ and ‘disinformation’ labels by populist politicians when describing legacy news media.