Perceived consumption of misinformation and disinformation

In a growing literature across scientific fields, the impact misinformation and disinformation have on society is perceived to be extremely large (Manor 2019). This huge saliency of the role misinformation and disinformation should play in our lives has led to growing public anxieties about the prevalence of false information in our daily lives. For example, in a multi-country survey conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study ofjournalism at the University of Oxford, more than half the participants across 38 countries were gravely concerned about the amount of false information on the internet (Newman 2018, 2019). Also, a 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center showed that US citizens ranked fake news as a bigger threat to their country than climate change, racism, or terrorism (Mitchell et al. 2019). All this is hard to marry with empirical evidence carefully suggesting that the actual percentage of mis- and disinformation the ‘average’ citizen is exposed to may be relatively limited, particularly when these citizens also use legacy news sources (Fletcher et al. 2018; Nelson and Taneja 2018; see also Grinberg et al. 2019). Instead, large-scale public anxieties about disinformation may cause some sort of placebo effect.

Specifically, the salience of the threat of being exposed to misinformation and disinformation can lead to perceived consumption: that is, citizens’ own estimation of how much misinformation and disinformation they themselves and others are exposed to. This estimation is likely only weakly related to actual consumption of inaccurate information. While we know that individuals generally have a hard time properly estimating their media consumption (Prior 2009), perceived consumption of misinformation and disinformation may be a political variable in its own right, connected to populist politics and rising media criticism in many Western democracies.

More precisely, attributions of inaccurate information are increasingly used as a strategy to discredit opposed information sources (Hameleers 2020). Most prominently, US president Donald Trump successfully generated a public debate about disinformation by labelling legacy outlets as ‘fake news’. A growing number of studies suggest that mostly populist politicians around the world are involved in accusations of intentional falsehood (e.g. Hameleers 2020). This can be linked to the binary worldview of populism, distinguishing between ‘the people’

and ‘the elite’. In that view, both groups ‘hold their own version of truth’, or, put more bluntly, ‘the people’ know and speak the truth while ‘the elite institutions’, such as journalism and science, are lying (Waisbord 2018a, 25). This is, for example, reflected in surveys that find that citizens holding populist attitudes are generally more distrustful towards news media (e.g. Fawzi 2019; Mitchell et al. 2018; Schulz et al. 2020).

This also suggests a polarisation of what is understood as ‘true’ and ‘false’, as well as a close connection of truth and facts with political ideology (Waisbord 2018a). As mentioned earlier, this is linked to confirmation bias, which explains how predispositions influence the processing of information (e.g. Casad 2007). For example, information that aligns with one’s political attitudes is likely processed in an uncritical way while information that contradicts one’s ideology is rejected. In the same vein, attributions of misinformation and disinformation (or ‘fake news’) to information sources are dependent on pre-existing attitudes (Hameleers 2020). For example, US president Trump frequently accuses liberal news outlets such as the New York Times and CNN of spreading fake news while he shares and supports the coverage of conservative outlets such as Fox News (Meeks 2020). Also, Australian politicians have been shown to use ‘fake news’ labels to discredit critical news media and political opponents (Farhall et al. 2019). Importantly for this chapter, this polarisation of perceptions of what constitutes disinformation is also mirrored in the public. For example, Van der Linden and colleagues (2020) asked US citizens to indicate which sources they associated with the term ‘fake news’. While conservatives mainly identified CNN as fake news, liberals associate the term more often with Fox News. Similarly, research shows that citizens use the term in social media communication to discredit information provided by opposing political parties (Brummette et al. 2018).

In sum, the ‘disinformation crisis’ is one of the most salient topics in current political discourses, and citizens are increasingly worried about its consequences. While the proportion of actual consumption of false information is increasingly often studied, there is likely also a high level of perceived consumption in polarised democracies. Because of the increasing political divide in many Western democracies and the close current link between ‘truth’ and partisan ideology, we propose that any study on the consumption of misinformation and disinformation must focus on a dual model of consumption as described earlier.

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