Perceived mis- and disinformation in a post-factual information setting: A conceptualisation and evidence from ten European countries

Michael Hameleers and Claes de Vreese

Today’s digital communication environments are increasingly seen as hosting phenomena that are problematic for deliberative democracy (e.g. Van Aelst et al., 2017). One of the most pressing issues in that regard is the alleged spread of false information — which refers to information that is either inaccurate without the intention to mislead (misinformation) or manipulated or fabricated to achieve a political goal (disinformation) (e.g. Hameleers et al., 2020; Tandoc Jr. et al., 2018; Wardle, 2017). Although scholars have started to map the dimensions of communicative untruthfulness and its political consequences (e.g. Marwick & Lewis, 2017; Wardle, 2017), we know little about how mis- and disinformation are actually perceived by citizens. Do the widespread concerns about communicative untruthfulness resonate with citizens’ interpretations of their information environment, and do they actually perceive their information setting as (deliberately) misleading and dishonest? In this chapter, we aim to give an overview of mis- and disinformation through the eyes of news consumers, offering evidence of how salient these media evaluations are among European news consumers.

In a communication era that has been described as post-truth or post-factual (e.g. Lewan-dowsky et al., 2012; Van Aelst et al., 2017) — the factual status of reality and the honesty of the news media’s worldviews are no longer taken at face value but rather are seen as relative or subject to distortion. This means that citizens may become more cynical and distrusting towards information presented to them as truthful. In line with this, they may use their ideological identities or prior attitudes to separate facts from fiction — rather than basing their judgment on the veracity of information (Hameleers & van der Meer, 2019). In this setting, it is crucial to look not only at the actual facticity, neutrality, and honesty of information, but also at the perceptions of unintended misinformation and intentional disinformation. Hence, as multiple accounts of the same external reality may reach citizens in (online) news environments, it is crucial to explore the extent to which news consumers actually trust the media — or whether they perceive a crisis of accuracy and honesty in the news they are exposed to. Mis- and disinformation may thus correspond to societal developments beyond the lack of facticity and honesty of information and can spill over into demand-side evaluations of the media’s accuracy and honesty.

Relying on existing supply-side conceptualisations that regard mis- and disinformation as different phenomena (e.g. Tandoc Jr. et al., 2018; Wardle, 2017), we discern two main dimensions by which news consumers perceptions of mis- and disinformation are structured: (1) misinformation perceptions pertaining to inaccurate news reporting that deviates from reality and (2) disinformation perceptions that tap the perceived dishonesty of the news environment, which corresponds to perceived intentional misleading, deception, and dishonesty of the media (see Hameleers et al., 2020).

Perceptions of disinformation in particular correspond to an overall populist worldview. Hence, it has been argued that populist voters increasingly regard the media and mainstream sources of knowledge as biased, corrupt, and deceptive (e.g. Egelhofer & Lecheler, 2019; Kramer, 2018; Tambini, 2017). More specifically, right-wing populist actors are said to rely on a discourse in which not only the political elites, but also the mainstream media are targeted as enemies of the people (Tambini, 2017). Hence, when people perceive that the media betray the people and deliberately manipulate reality to serve their own interests, an inherently populist worldview is expressed (Fawzi, 2018). Specifically, disinformation perceptions juxtapose the honest ordinary people with corrupt elites in the media. In tandem with the increasing concern about the pervasiveness of populist sentiments throughout Europe, we thus also need to comprehend how such perceptions are expressed towards the media as a likely salient scapegoat for the peoples problems.

In the next sections, this chapter will give an overview of how mis- and disinformation can be conceptualised as perceptions of the news medias accuracy and honesty. We will present evidence of the extent to which people in different European countries actually hold these perceptions when evaluating the medias performance, also offering insights into the role of national-level opportunity structures that may give rise to lower or higher levels of these perceptions. As mis- and disinformation perceptions may have different democratic implications, it is important to assess the extent to which news consumers in different countries evaluate the media according to these dimensions, and whether they can distinguish unintentional falsehoods (misinformation) from deliberative deception (disinformation).

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