Actual consumption of misinformation and disinformation
The literature on the consumption of mis- and disinformation is a moving target, with new studies emerging at a fast pace (Ha et al. 2019). In the most general sense, citizens can be exposed to mis- and disinformation directly or indirectly. That means they may see or read it on a website or on other channels it originates from. What is also possible, however, is that they consume it indirectly: that is, they learn about it through other platforms or channels that have adapted and disseminated this information.
A direct form of consumption often discussed in the literature are websites dedicated to disseminating disinformation (e.g. Vargo et al. 2018). Egelhofer and Lecheler (2019) refer to these websites as the true form of ‘fake news’ because they are not only low in facticity but are also created with the intention to deceive using pseudojournalistic cues. For example, fake news websites often have names that imitate those of established news outlets (Allcott and Gentzkow 2017) (e.g. the Political Insider or the Denver Guardian). They are, however, also short lived as ‘they do not attempt to build a long-term reputation for quality, but rather maximize the short-run profits from attracting clicks in an initial period’ (Allcott and Gentzkow 2017, 218—219). This makes accumulating data on actual consumption rather tricky. The available research does, however, show that traffic to these websites is rather limited compared to the general media diet of an average citizen (Fletcher et al. 2018; Nelson and Taneja 2018).
A second way in which misinformation and disinformation may be directly consumed is through social media communication (Tucker et al. 2018). Initially, research suggested that Facebook plays a particularly important role when estimating the role of disinformation consumption in peoples daily lives (e.g. Guess et al. 2018; Nelson and Taneja 2018). Research focusing on the 2016 US presidential election suggests that there were posts containing disinformation that received more shares and likes during the election campaign than many mainstream news stories (Silverman 2016). However, recent research shows that disinformation spreads across platforms (Wilson and Starbird 2020) and is driven by the affordances of different platforms, such as hashtags (Weber et al. 2020), algorithmic targeting (e.g. Hussain et al. 2018), and visual communication tools (Diakopoulos and Johnson 2020). Another aspect of social media communication that has received particular attention in research is bots — which are often discussed for their ability to ‘amplify marginal voices and ideas by inflating the number of likes, shares and retweets they receive, creating an artificial sense of popularity, momentum or relevance’ (Bradshaw and Howard 2017, 11). However, comparisons show that humans are the main drivers of falsity online (Vosoughi et al. 2018, 1146) and that ‘effective disinformation campaigns involve diverse participants; they might even include a majority of “unwitting agents” who are unaware of their role, but who amplify and embellish messages that polarize communities and sow doubt about science, mainstream journalism and Western governments’ (Starbird 2019). Given all this, it is still difficult to generalise on how far reaching consumption of misinformation and disinformation on social media really is. While a growing number of studies detect cases of disinformation campaigns during, for instance, election campaigns (e.g. Bossetta 2018), there is only limited contrasting knowledge on the role these disinformation campaigns play in daily media consumption patterns of citizens. For example, Grinberg et al. (2019, 374) argue that ‘engagement with fake news sources was extremely concentrated [during the 2016 elections]. Only 1% of individuals accounted for 80% of fake news source exposures, and 0.1% accounted for nearly 80% of fake news sources shared’. The direct consumption of misinformation and disinformation also warrants a look at the relationship between social media communication and alternative and partisan media websites (Faris et al. 2017; Tucker et al. 2018). While this is a bit of an empirical grey area, raising questions about the relationship between false information and biased presentation of information, research suggests that consumption is tied to alternative news websites; new digital forms of populist party communication, such as YouTube channels; and new forms of party magazines (Bennett and Livingston 2018, 128).
‘Indirect forms of consumption of disinformation and misinformation’ most often describes the experience of information through legacy news media. News media play an important role in the disinformation crisis because they may spread misinformation either by mistake through lack of proper verification (Van Leuven et al. 2018) or even intentionally. Importantly, however, intentionality here is hard to measure and has so far not been covered empirically (Egelhofer and Lecheler 2019). Yet indirect consumption through news media is likely one of the most important aspects of the study of disinformation because even in a digital age, news journalists fulfil a disseminator function for many citizens, and misperceptions formed on the basis of false news are difficult to correct (Flynn et al. 2017; Tsfati et al. 2020). Bennett and Livingston (2018, 123) argue this importance of indirect consumption through news media:
While the origins of much, and perhaps most, disinformation are obscure, it often passes through the gates of the legacy media, resulting in an ‘amplifier effect’ for stories that would be dismissed as absurd in earlier eras of more effective press gatekeeping.
Be it direct or indirect, the motivations for consumption are equally relevant, yet equally hard to pinpoint. First, many scholars assume that citizens consume false content simply because they lack the digital literacy to distinguish it from factually correct information (Vraga and Tully 2019). Here, heavy news users may be better in recognising and rejecting ‘fake news’, depending on what kind of news media they regularly use (Lewandowsky et al. 2017). Another proxy for digital literacy is age, and in the context of the 2016 US election, Grinberg et al. (2019, 374) showed that registered voters on Twitter were most likely to engage with fake news when they were ‘conservative leaning, older, and highly engaged with political news’. Also, there is research showing that consumption of false information is related to media trust (Zimmermann and Kohring 2020).
Another important variable is political ideology. While some research shows that conservatives are more likely to consume disinformation (Guess et al. 2019), other studies do not find this connection. For example, Bossetta (2018) shows that one in five Twitter users are susceptible to spear phishing attacks, independent of their political ideology. Humprecht et al. (2020, 7) argue that consumption of disinformation is tied to populist communication because ‘populism and partisan disinformation share a binary Manichaean worldview, anti-elitism, mistrust of expert knowledge, and conspiracy theories’. This relates consumption of disinformation to the confirmation bias and motivated reasoning literature, which shows that congruent information is more likely to be accepted than incongruent information (see Hameleers 2020).