Lessons from an extraordinary year: four heuristics for studying mediated misinformation in 2020 and beyond

Lucas Graves

In hindsight, 2020 will have been a momentous year to study politics, misinformation, and the media. It may also seem a very disorienting one.

As the year began, a much-needed scholarly course correction was well underway. A raft of studies carried out since 2016 has cast doubt on common assumptions about the influence of echo chambers and so-called ‘fake news’ on the internet. Growing numbers of scholars recognise that a kind of moral panic around online misinformation — not least among academics — was set off by events like Donald Trumps election and the UK’s Brexit vote (Marwick 2018; Carlson 2020), in which alarming statistics about viral Facebook rumours supplied ‘a tidy narrative that resonated with concerns about potential online echo chambers’ (Nyhan 2019). Repressive new laws from Kenya to Singapore further underscored the risk of‘knee-jerk policy responses’ to misinformation (Jimenez Cruz et al. 2018).

At the same time, 2020 has produced extraordinary, unrelenting reminders of the profound and even deadly consequences of misalignment between what Walter Lippmann (1922) called ‘the world outside and the pictures in our heads’. In the United States, the year began with the president’s acquittal after impeachment hearings that featured top lawmakers citing widely debunked conspiracy theories to defend him. The impeachment had barely faded from headlines when the global COVID-19 pandemic struck, accompanied by what the head of the World Health Organization called an ‘infodemic’ of ‘fake news [that] spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous’ (Ghebreyesus 2020). A tide of misinformation, from bogus cures to conspiracy theories, overwhelmed fact-checkers and alarmed public officials around the world (Brennen et al. 2020). Sensational reports of people killed by consuming dangerous chemicals to fight the disease only hint at much graver questions: how can we measure the human costs of rumours and rhetoric that undermine public health recommendations? What role do the features of different media systems, with varying levels of ‘resilience’ to misinformation (Humprecht et al. 2020), have in explaining the sharply diverging policy responses and health outcomes seen in different countries?

Events like these offer a reminder that debunking crude assumptions about the effects of false messages is only the first step in understanding how our media shape public discourse in a moment of high polarisation and resurgent populism. This chapter uses the questions raised by the ‘infodemic’ as a platform to articulate several heuristics for thinking about how mediated misinformation matters in public life today. Each of these reminders is based on gaps or caveats that are often acknowledged, though only rarely addressed, in the growing literature on effects of misinformation, reviewed below. Taken together, they may help illuminate new priorities for scholars working in this area.

The minimal effects of misinformation

Compared to the burgeoning literature on the effectiveness of fact-checking, few studies have systematically explored how misinformation influences political beliefs or behaviour (Li 2020). However, current evidence points to fairly limited direct effects. For example, Guess et al. (2020) find small increases in misperception with exposure to dubious content under experimental conditions as well as in tracking data. Studies around the 2016 US election suggest ‘fake news’ played a negligible role (but see Gunther et al. 2018): false stories were shared widely but made up a tiny part of most news diets, with heavy use concentrated among extreme partisans who are least persuadable (Allcott and Gentzkow 2017; Guess, Nyhan, et al. 2018; Nelson and Taneja 2018). Interacting with Twitter accounts associated with Russia’s Internet Research Agency — which operated massive online disinformation campaigns in 2016 — appears to have had no significant impact on political attitudes or behaviour (Bail et al. 2020). Similarly, Garrett (2019, 3) finds social media use associated with only small increases in partisan misperceptions, suggesting that ‘the limited media effects paradigm persists in the face of these new technologies’.

Nothing about the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’ directly refutes this ‘limited effects’ consensus. Together with evidence that informational ‘echo chambers’ are less prevalent than has been widely assumed (e.g. Eady et al. 2019), misinformation research shows, yet again, how reluctant we should be to attribute complex social or political phenomena to new media technologies. In hindsight, the current panic about virus-related rumours (though not about the virus itself) may seem excessive. And health-related misinformation can be seen as a special case, both easier to identify and more obviously harmful than ‘fake news’about politics. ‘False information about COVID-19 can be deadly’, Kreps and Nyhan (2020) stress in arguing that social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook should not extend aggressive content moderation rules devised for the pandemic to misleading political speech in general.

However, the line between medical and political misinformation can be difficult to draw in a deeply polarised moment, when the choice to observe or ignore health guidelines itself has become a badge of partisan identity (Clinton et al. 2020). It is one thing to measure the potential influence of an item of ‘fake news’ as it affects individual health behaviours. But it’s something else entirely to ask how patterns of misinformation, as a feature of contemporary landscapes of political communication, are implicated in the divisive politics or incoherent policies around the virus seen in many countries — most notably, in highly populist and partisan environments like Brazil and the United States.

What the pandemic underscores is the narrowness of the paradigmatic approach to misinformation in political communications research, centred on the individual effects of accurate or inaccurate information. The notion of an ‘infodemic’ itself reflects a model of informed political reasoning that treats bad information as a kind of virus whose effects are false beliefs and poor decisions (Graves and Wells 2019). This continues to be a tremendously productive paradigm; its narrowness and internal rigour are what have allowed easy assumptions about rumour-filled, belief-distorting echo chambers to be tested. But it also sharply limits the ways we think about the relationship between changing media and political systems and the role of misinf ormation in those shifts — limits that have become more apparent as populist attitudes and leaders come to the fore.

The pandemic raises questions communications scholars too rarely consider in a comprehensive way about the mutually structuring relationship between political culture — especially the shifting norms and practices of elite political actors — and the media environment. These are vital questions at a moment marked by profound political changes, most notably the populist turn, which, while not caused by the media in any simple sense, is profoundly tied to it. The following four heuristics use examples drawn from the pandemic and other events of 2020 to highlight what the ‘limited effects’ paradigm misses in thinking about how misinformation matters as political discourse.

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