Beyond distrust and hostility: perceived mis- and disinformation

In conceptualising mis- and disinformation, we follow extant literature that has distinguished different forms of mis- and disinformation (e.g. Tandoc Jr. et al., 2018; Wardle, 2017). Although conceptual consensus on the scope of mis- and disinformation has not yet been reached (see, for example, Weeks & Gil de Zuniga, 2019), many scholars have argued that fake news as a concept is too vague to fully express the nature of untruthful communication (e.g. Freelon & Wells, 2020; Wardle, 2017). Most conceptualisations have in common that different forms of mis- or disinformation are distinguished based on facticity and intent (Tandoc Jr. et al., 2018). Based on this core distinction, two main types of communicative untruthfulness can be distinguished: misinformation and disinformation.

Misinformation can simply be defined as communication that is inaccurate or untrue but without the intention of misleading receivers (e.g. Wardle, 2017). Misinformation thus scores ‘low’on the facticity dimension (Tandoc Jr. et al., 2018) and refers to statements that are untrue when scrutinised by empirical evidence and/or expert opinion (Nyhan & Reifler, 2010). Misinformation can be disseminated by many different actors, such as politicians, advertisers, and journalists, but also ordinary citizens who communicate their positions via social media. The level or severity of untruthfulness may vary, depending on the deviation from the external, objective reality. More specifically, misinformation can be ‘completely false’or ‘mostly true’and everything in between these extremes. Such degrees of untruthfulness are also captured by factchecking platforms such as Snopes or PolitiFact.

Different from misinformation, disinformation refers to the intentional or goal-directed manipulation or fabrication of information (e.g. Jackson, 2017; Marwick & Lewis, 2017; Wardle, 2017). The goals of disinformation may vary, but cultivating distrust; increasing support for, for example, radical left- or right-wing issue positions; and strengthening polarisation may be some of the political goals targeted by agents of disinformation (Jackson, 2017; Marwick & Lewis, 2017). Disinformation is often partisan in nature: it is tailored to specific issue publics or ideological groups in society that should be most likely to accept the dishonest claims (Marwick & Lewis, 2017). The partisan or ideological underpinnings make disinformation potentially harmful in today’s media settings: when citizens are exposed to disinformation that reassures their partisan identities or issue positions, they are less likely to cast doubts on its veracity. As disinformation is intended to make an impact and as it can be distributed in a systematic, goal-directed way to bring about societal change or disruption, it may be problematic for deliberative democracy.

Although the distinction between mis- and disinformation has been made in conceptual literature, we know very little about the actual occurrence of these types of communicative untruthfulness in the digital media landscape. Hence, in light of digital developments fostering fragmentation, personalisation, and micro-targeting, researchers face an enormous challenge in mapping the scope of mis- and disinformation on the supply side. In addition, mis- or disinformation cannot simply be equated with any type of communication that lacks objective, factual coverage and/or expert knowledge, which makes it difficult to identify the scope of mis- and disinformation. What we can actually map empirically is how news consumers themselves perceive mis- and disinformation (see Hameleers et al., 2020), which may have crucial ramifications for the effects of false information on society and the selection decisions of citizens in fragmented media environments. More specifically, the more people perceive the traditional information environment as characterised by mis- and disinformation, the less they trust the news media and the more likely they are to resort to alternative sources and platforms. Based on the premises of motivated reasoning resulting in confirmation biases and defensive motivations (e.g. Hart et al., 2009), information that resonates with people’s ideologies and prior attitudes is least likely to be subject to doubt and scepticism, which also implies that the perception of mis-and disinformation may mostly be assigned to information that challenges the existing beliefs of citizens. In that sense, these perceptions can have far-reaching democratic implications: if citizens dismiss incongruent realities as untrue or misleading, they can avoid cognitive dissonance and stick to congruent accounts of reality, irrespective of the actual veracity of information. If the same mechanism operates at opposite fringes of the political spectrum, mis- and disinformation perceptions may augment polarisation and partisan or ideological divides in society. In that sense, mis- and disinformation may not only relate to people’s actual beliefs in the accuracy and honesty of information, but also serve as cues to defend attitudinal positions and identities in a high-choice media environment in which congruent truths are widely available.

Shifting our focus to the demand side of mis- and disinformation, mis- and disinformation can be perceived as individual-level attitudes corresponding to news consumers’ perceptions of inaccurate, untruthful, and/or dishonest communication in their media environments (Hameleers et al., 2020). As distrust and hostility towards information and the press has become more politicised and, arguably, subject to populist framing (Fawzi, 2018; Hameleers et al., 2020), traditional measures of media trust and hostile media perceptions fall short of accurately capturing citizens’ media evaluations. Hence, some citizens not only hold negative evaluations of the medias performance or biases but may also regard the media as part of the established order that deliberately misleads the people. Citizens with less-pronounced populist worldviews may believe that the media at times fail to report on the facts as they happened, without assigning this failure to goal-directed manipulation and deception.

In terms of consequences for deliberative democracy, distinguishing between these different dimensions of the media’s evaluation may also separate healthy sceptics from cynical and distrusting citizens: People with misinformation attitudes may still trust the institution and democratic function of the news media to inform citizens, although they feel that information is not always accurate. Disinformation attitudes, in contrast, correspond to institutional distrust and cynicism: people who perceive that the media are lying to the people have no faith in the functioning and neutrality of the institutions that govern the supply of information in society. Together, in an information ecology characterised by increasing relativism towards the objective status of facts, news consumers’ perceptions of media honesty, trustworthiness, and accuracy should be measured using a multidimensional measure of mis- and disinformation and not simply by established measures of media trust and/or hostile media perceptions (see Hameleers et al., 2020).

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