Consumption of misinformation and disinformation

Sophie Lecheler and Jana Laura Egelhofer

While the relevance of incorrect or misleading information that is disseminated unintentionally (i.e. ‘misinformation’), as well as of incorrect or misleading information that is disseminated deliberately (i.e. ‘disinformation’) has been widely discussed (Bennett and Livingston 2018; Waisbord 2018a, 2018b; Lewandowsky et al. 2017), there are only a relatively small number of studies that can help us understand how common the actual consumption of misinformation and disinformation is and what motivates this consumption.

What is more, because public worries and excessive news media coverage about a disinformation crisis have been so significant, there is likely also a certain level of perceived consumption of misinformation and disinformation among citizens (Egelhofer and Lecheler 2019). This means that citizens are so worried about being manipulated in a polarised political environment that they either believe that a media outlet intentionally disseminates disinformation once the label ‘fake news’ is applied to it (e.g. a populist politician labelling a news organisation), or they generally overestimate the ratio of misinformation and disinformation in their media diet. This perceived consumption might be harmful, in that it may demobilise and raise levels of distrust and cynicism among citizens (e.g. Van Duyn and Collier 2019). But it might also backfire against those who try to cause it. For example, exposure to ‘fake news’ labels against legacy news organisations may actually raise media trust (Tamul et al. 2020).

In this chapter, we summarise the available theoretical and empirical literature on both actual and perceived consumption of misinformation and disinformation.1

The dual consumption of misinformation and disinformation

We live in a digital age, when information may be created and spread more cost efficiently and quickly than ever before and in which audiences are now able to participate in news production and dissemination processes (e.g. Lazer et al. 2018; McNair 2017). As a result, classic selection mechanisms, such as trust in the gatekeeping function of professional journalism, are impaired (e.g. Nielsen and Graves 2017; Starr 2012), not only because it is increasingly challenging to differentiate between professional and unprofessional content but also because journalists themselves are now challenged in properly verifying digital information during the news production process (Lecheler and Kruikemeier 2016). This challenge puts the assessment of information credibility increasingly with an overwhelmed user (Metzger et al. 2003), and even so-called digital natives struggle with evaluating online information. In addition, digital advertising makes, in particular, disinformation or ‘fake news’financially attractive as views or ‘clicks’, instead of the accuracy of the content, create business success (e.g. Allcott and Gentzkow 2017). This idea links disinformation to the emergence of clickbait, or the creation of news content solely aimed at generating attention through sensational and emotionally appealing headlines (Bakir and McStay 2018).

These technological developments are met by a number of social and political trends: most scholars connect the emergence of the so-called disinformation crisis to a larger crisis of trust in journalism (e.g. Lazer et al. 2018; McNair 2017; Nielsen and Graves 2017). While most prominently discussed in the US, where media trust has dropped to ‘a new low’ (Swift 2016), increasing mistrust towards news media is also a problem (in varying degrees) in other countries (Newman et al. 2017). Importantly, media trust is not decreasing for all citizens and rather has to be seen in the context of increasing political polarisation. In the US, media perceptions are divided by partisanship, with Democrats having more positive attitudes towards the media than Republicans (e.g. Gottfried et al. 2018; Guess et al. 2017). In (Western) Europe, citizens holding populist views are more likely to have negative opinions of news media than those holding non-populist views (Mitchell et al. 2018). However, for some, decreasing trust in traditional journalism might lead to a higher acceptance of other information sources, including disinformation. Furthermore, increasing opinion polarisation leads to homogeneous networks, where opposing views are rare, and the willingness to accept ideology-confirming news — true or false — is high (e.g. Allcott and Gentzkow 2017; Lazer et al. 2018; Mihailidis and Viotty 2017).

When considering all this, we can pinpoint two pathways to the consumption of misinformation and disinformation. First, there is, of course, the actual consumption of factually incorrect information, be it online or through other channels. Then there is a second pathway of perceived consumption, in which citizens overestimate the occurrence of false information in their media diets, ascribing the label ‘fake news’ to everything they do not believe in or that may even just feature opinions different from their own.

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