Responses to misinformation, disinformation and populism (Part V)
Part V looks at the responses to misinformation and disinformation, particularly in areas of freedom of speech, human rights, and the diminishing of public trust and journalistic legitimacy and authority. It examines political and social efforts to address the causes and the consequences of mis/disinformation, through mitigating the effects of fake news and other inaccuracies.
The first three pieces in this part examine legal and regulatory responses to mis/disinformation. Alison Harcourt (Chapter 40) explains the current legislative response by the European Union whilst also examining case studies on the UK’s, Germany’s, and France’s responses. Germany introduced a law in 2017 which polices social media websites following a number of high-profile national court cases concerning fake news and the spread of racist material. France passed a law in 2018 which similarly obliges social media networks to take down content upon request from a judge. The UK took a more self-regulative approach after a UK Commons committee investigation into fake news (2017) concluded that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg failed to show ‘leadership or personal responsibility’ over fake news. Daniel Funke (Chapter 41) follows Alison Harcourt’s analysis of the EU by looking at worldwide actions in restricting the flow of falsehoods on the internet, particularly during elections and other political events. Funke shows that at least 50 countries took some form of action against online mis/disinformation. These range from hard regulations, such as internet shutdowns, to soft regulations, such as media literacy initiatives (see Chapters 44 and 45) and task forces. The effectiveness of these actions is hard to assess since many were only implemented recently. Critics of ‘hard’ actions see them as having the potential to censor citizens whilst those of ‘soft’ regulations see little meaningful change being elicited. Shawn Goh Ze Song and Carol Soon (Chapter 42) explore the possibility that Singapore’s resilience against rising populism in other parts of the world and the onslaught of populist-fuelled disinformation stems from a balance between the government’s using strong-handed regulation to protect national interests and remaining hyper-responsive to public opinion and public demands in order to maintain popular support. They look at how the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) was scoped and communicated to the public and how the government responded to the concerns of civil society, academics, and the wider public regarding potential legislative overreach and censorship. Eun-Ju Lee and Soo Yun Shin (Chapter 43), in discussing debunking misinformation, show that at its core, it entails exposing falsehood and inaccuracies in verifiable information, thereby correcting misbeliefs. They suggest that although the challenges associated with debunking misinformation are well known, such as the continued influence of misinformation, recent meta-analyses suggest that corrective messages can attenuate the influence of misinformation to varying degrees, depending on message content and audience-related factors.
The next two chapters focus on literacy as a possible response to mis/disinformation. Because of the wide variety of different media and their roles in our lives, Melissa Tully (Chapter 44) argues that news literacy requires its own definitions and scholarly attention because the knowledge and skills — fact-checking, verifying, and correcting — required to identify news are similar to those needed to identify (and possibly reject) misinformation. She proposes and defines five domains — context, creation, content, circulation, and consumption — that make up news literacy. Nicole A. Cooke (Chapter 45) adds a third category to misinformation and disinformation: namely, malinformation, which is genuine information shared to cause harm, such as revenge porn. Media and information literacies have long been taught in libraries and classrooms to educate consumers about the perils of false information. However there are gaps that do not reach audiences. Part of the solution, she suggests, is the need for a critical information literacy to comprehend the underlying power structures that shape information and media. Cooke also argues for a critical cultural literacy, which can aid in verifying and refuting false information and can question and investigate cultural contexts of the information. The following three chapters look at ways of countering mis/disinformation. Firstly Leticia Bode and Emily Vraga (Chapter 46) show that the correction of misinformation on social media can take several forms, including coming from platforms themselves or from other users on the platforms. As a consequence of what they see as the limitations of various responses to mis/disinformation, Bode and Vraga propose observational correction, in which people update their own attitudes after seeing someone else being corrected on social media. They argue that
observational correction represents a flexible, robust, and community solution to misinformation on social media that appeals to populist ideals. Rather than depending on elites to combat the problem of misinformation, motivating ordinary users to respond to misinformation not only provides the scalable response needed but one that can appeal to people regardless of their position or beliefs.
Babak Bahador (Chapter 47) offers a critical assessment of the counterspeech approach to hate speech (see also Chapter 7). He presents a model of five dimensions of counterspeech: the targeted audiences, including the public, the vulnerable, hate-group members, and violent extremists; the goals of those engaging in counterspeech efforts, which often vary by target audience; the tactics employed to reach different audiences, both online and offline; the messaging which reviews the different content typologies used to try and influence audiences; and the effects in which the findings from different evaluation studies on counterspeech are assessed.
Eva Giraud and Elizabeth Poole (Chapter 48) map out how digital counter-narratives can be constructed to contest and respond to disinformation and online hate speech circulated by right-wing populists. While they point out the limitations of new media platforms for mediated activism, they show through specific case studies how social media such as Twitter can be harnessed for anti-racist and anti-Islamophobic strategies. They conclude that while digital spaces offer marginalised communities some opportunities to claim social power, they are located in socio-political systems in which the distribution of power is unequal; hence, structural inequalities tend to be reproduced online. Maria Kyriakidou and Stephen Cushion (Chapter 49) detail some ofjournalism’s response to counter mis/disinformation such as ‘independent’ fact-checking by public service broadcasters and specialist education and training. Establishing the veracity of an event or issue and accurately informing the public about it are deeply ingrained in the ‘fourth-estate role’of journalism in holding power to account and exposing abuses of authority. However, attempts to manipulate information and deceive the public are more sophisticated, renewing the urgency of the demands placed on journalists to retain legitimacy and trust. James Deane (Chapter 50) takes this response further by summarising the strategies that BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international media support charity, adopts to combat mis/disinformation. Their approach is heavily informed by BBC values believing
that improving the character and quality of the information and communication environment — privileging the availability and access to trustworthy information, increasing societal capacity for debate and dialogue across societal divides, enabling a diversity of voices to be heard — makes societies more resilient to (although certainly not immune to) populism as well as authoritarianism.
In the penultimate piece, Emily Thorson and Jianing Li (Chapter 51) focus on a slightly different question: what happens after a person receives a correction to a piece of misinformation? When are corrections successful, and when do they fail? Can misinformation continue to affect attitudes even after it is successfully corrected? They conclude that on average, corrections are successful at moving people closer to the truth. However it is often only some people who change their beliefs, and this can be a problem with information on vaccines, for example. They conclude that corrections work better when they come from a trusted source; offer the reader (either with visuals or with narrative) a clear, compelling story; and are met with curiosity, desire for accuracy, and the ability to navigate the increasingly complex media environment. The final piece in this part, by Christian Staal, Bruun Overgaard, Anthony Dudo, Matthew Lease, Gina M. Masullo, Natalie Jomini Stroud, Scott R. Stroud, and Samuel C. Woolley (Chapter 52), tackles polarisation, another escalating international issue, with its democratic consequences and its intertwinement with the spread of misinformation. They suggest that the spread of false or manipulative messages is connected to polarisation amongst a number of social entities: political parties, religious denominations, issue publics, social classes, racial groups, and others. They map out empirically sound and theoretically rigourous solutions to the problem of polarisation. The authors argue that these solutions are integral to building what they term a new ‘connective democracy’ in a world now defined by digital communication and the promises and perils of networked life.
The Companion is the first collection to examine all these issues in one volume. The distinctiveness of the Companion is that it encompasses a variety of subject areas: political communication, journalism, law, sociology, cultural studies, international politics, and international relations. Thus, it will be of great benefit to undergraduate and postgraduate students pursuing degrees and joint degrees in these disciplines. Considering that populism is a subject of interest across disciplines and fields of study and practice, the book will appeal to students and academics working and teaching in these various subject areas. The book is theoretically and methodologically comprehensive and features various historical and critical approaches to provide a full understanding of media, disinformation, and populism. The Companion is therefore both interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. The companion consists of 52 contributions from scholars based in different regions of the world whose work deals with aspects of misinformation and populism across countries, political systems, and media systems. We feel that a global, comparative approach to the study of misinformation and populism is also necessary to identify common elements and particular characteristics.
We are especially grateful to everyone for accepting our invitation to participate in this project. What no one could have anticipated when we began to plan out the Companion was the outbreak of a worldwide pandemic, COVID-19, that occurred halfway through the writing of the book. Despite having to cope with changes to workload patterns, moving to online teaching, home schooling for those with children, and the constant worries about infection, everyone did their utmost to keep to the deadlines. Not only that, but many of the authors included both explicit and nuanced discussion about the effects of the virus in their chapters. It makes for a more relevant and insightful Companion about the media, disinformation, and populism than we could ever have imagined.
We are grateful to Margaret Farrelly, Editor of Media and Journalism Studies at Routledge, for her generous encouragement and support in initiating the project and seeing it to completion. At Routledge, we are also thankful to Priscille Biehlmann, Editorial Assistant for Journalism and Media Studies, and Jennifer Vennail, Senior Editorial Assistant Media and Cultural
Studies, for their efficiency and support whilst working closely with us during the length of the project. Thanks are also due to the production staff at Routledge who assisted in the preparation of the manuscript. Thank you to Ramachandran Vijayaragavan, project manager, for the production of the book and to copyeditor Lisa A. Bannick. We are also grateful to Sarah Dicioccio for her assistance in preparing the manuscript.
We hope that readers will enjoy and be challenged by the Companion.
City, University of London
Silvio Waisbord George Washington University