Disinformation and news consumption in a polarized society: An analysis of the case of Venezuela
Introduction and theoretical framework
Up until a few years ago. disinformation used to be synonymous with “lack of information,” ascribable to citizens’ low interest in public affairs. However, since 2016 and especially as a result of the U.S. electoral campaign (Allcott & Gentzkow. 2017) and Brexit (Bastos & Mercea, 2019). disinformation also becomes a spoken about factor, above all referring to the deliberate efforts of certain agents to misinform with lies and half-truths, intoxicating and even saturating the citizen, in what have been called “disinformation operations.” Much of the success of these false news lies in their virality, that is, in their ability to be shared by Internet users throughout different social networks and instant messaging applications.
From a broader perspective, disinformation is a modality within what has been called “problematic information” (Jack. 2017), which includes various types of information that are inaccurate, misleading, improperly attributed, or totally fabricated. Although it is true that these contents are not novel— their existence goes back to the origins of modern journalism with the yellow press (Campbell. 2001) and to the use of propaganda in the World Wars (Lasswell. 1927). the existing communicational characteristics in the digital age do promote new ways for problematic information to be created, circulated. and received by users, increasing its potential effects (Freelon & Wells, 2020). In the words of Boczkowski (2017): “fake news [have] been around for as long as real news. But a differentiating element of the contemporary moment is the existence of an information infrastructure with a scale, scope, and horizontality in information flows unprecedented in history” (p. 4).
This information infrastructure is related to aspects of a technological, but also political, social, and economic nature, giving rise to a “disinformation order” (Bennett & Livingston, 2018). This is manifested through the public sphere in many countries, which has suffered a disruption due to growing challenges that confront “the democratic centering principles of (a) authoritative information, (b) emanating from social and political institutions that (c) engage trusting and credulous publics” (Bennett & Livingstone, 2018, pp. 126-127). For this reason, according to authors such as Chadwick (2019), this drift has to be framed in a broader crisis of public communication. A sign of this crisis is the decline in confidence in political institutions as well as the media, which traditionally has the role of ensuring the proper functioning of these institutions. Again, the configuration of the digital ecosystem accentuates both the financial and identity problems of journalistic media.
In a context marked by the overabundance of information and by the power that platforms hold over the production and distribution of content (Nieborg & Poell. 2018; Nielsen & Ganter, 2018), the media outlets must compete for users’ time and attention, against many other players also seeking to monetize from it. Among these, other companies that operate without the demands of impartiality, rigor, and professionalism required for serious journalistic endeavors, since they base their editorial model on offering partisan information that feeds the growing “affective polarization” of citizens (Iyengar & Westwood, 2015; Tucker et al., 2018). These partisan media take advantage of phenomena such as selective exposure, in which the consumer tries to avoid any type of cognitive dissonance (Walter et al.. 2019). Thus, the breakage in institutional authority and processes of political representation. combined with the rise of alternative information channels that try to exploit ideological niches in a “clickbait economy” (Munger. 2020). gives rise to a great variety of problematic information flows.
In order to understand the contemporary information ecosystem, we must pay attention to several elements (Wardle, 2017): the different types of content that are created and disseminated, the motivations of those who create those contents, the ways in which these are disseminated and. finally, the ways in which people consume news in actuality.
Firstly, regarding the types of content that fall under the paradigm of "problematic information.” the term “fake news” has reached the most popularity (to the extent that it was chosen as the ‘word of the year' by the Oxford Dictionary in 2017). However, there are numerous researchers (Freelon & Wells, 2020; High Level Expert Group on Fake News and Disinformation. 2018; Wardle & Derakhshan, 2017) who advocate for using more appropriate concepts to describe the complex phenomenon of disinformation in all its variants. In addition, it is a biased term and has been used as a political weapon, being often used by politicians to pressure journalistic companies whose news coverage is critical of them (Khaldarova & Pantti, 2016; van der Linden. Panagopoulos, & Roozenbeek, 2020). Therefore, it is preferable to opt for the concept of disinformation, understood as “all forms of false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit” (HLEG, 2018, p. 5).
Secondly, this definition for disinformation, employed by the High-Level Expert Group on Fake News and Disinformation designated by the European Commission, includes a second parameter that aids us in cataloguing the ensemble of misinformative genres; the motivation of whoever creates the content. Indeed, the intention to cause harm or to seek profit is a vector that allows malicious disinformation and deliberately polarized
Disinformation and news consumption 163 content to be distinguished from other modalities where online content is not truthful, such as satirical news or journalistic pieces that turn out to be imprecise due to misinformation or lack of professionalism, even if there is no motivation for causing intentional deception or confusion. Considering Molina et al. (2019), aspects such as the content itself (factuality, lexical, and syntactic features, presented evidence), the sources consulted, and the identity and intentions of the issuing agent and other structural elements (such as URL. the transparency of the website that broadcasts it or the metadata), allow the establishment of a taxonomy of false content modalities that contrast with the "real news." The modalities might vary, going from manufactured news to disguised advertising, passing through parodic news or information from hyperpartisan sources.
Thirdly, attention must be paid to how disinformation is disseminated in the digital environment, starting with the idea that traditional and new media actors coexist in the “hybrid media system" (Chadwick, 2013), which operate on overlapping and competing media logics, presenting different levels of potential reach, epistemological authority, and manipulative skills. Along with this, the act of “sharing" has become a dominant pattern in digital consumption habits (John. 2016). The preeminence of the act of sharing, together with the logic of prosumption (according to which each user can be both a producer and a consumer of content), causes a multiplication of agents broadcasting to potential recipients within the digital space. Thus, in the contemporary information cycle, multiple actors are involved, both in the creation phase and in the dissemination of content.
For this reason, following Giglietto et al. (2019), it is convenient to challenge previous perspectives and not only focus on the potential creators of disinformation, instead broadening the focus and analyzing the propagators—intentional or not—of said disinformation. In this sense, for Valenzuela et al. (2019) political commitment is an important consequence of the use of social networks for information and it becomes a decisive factor when it comes to sharing false news. According to Giglieto et al. (2019), the distribution of these contents takes the form of “cascades of false information” (635), where:
- • The intention of, what they call, the “injector” does not determine the future evolution of the false information cycle (and thus, what started as a parody or journalistic error might be amplified for manipulative purposes).
- • The information advances in a process where different actors, according to criteria related to the source, the narrated facts, and the context, evaluate the veracity of the content (or lack of thereof).
- • The social consensus around the veracity of the information, even when it has been subjected to fact checking, will hardly be unanimous, given the “confirmation biases” and tribalism (Nickerson. 1998; Sunstein, 2017) that underlie informational consumption habits of broad social groups.
After briefly reviewing the types of content that are created and disseminated, the motivations of those who create those contents, and the ways in which they are disseminated, it is necessary to address the last dimension on the ways in which people consume news. Exposure to news by citizens is conditioned by the action of various factors, among which are the overabundance of information from different channels, constant connectivity, the economy of attention, the multiplicity of screens and their simultaneous use. and the socialization of information consumption (Serrano-Puche,
- 2017) . These factors, in the aforementioned hybrid media system, cause the “cross-mediality” between online and offline platforms, as one of the keys to news consumption. This cross-mediality, considering that social networks represent the main channel of dissemination of hoaxes (Paniagua. Seoane, & Magall6n-Rosa. 2020; Resende et al., 2019; Salaverria et al., 2020), increases the potential consequences of disinformation. Indeed, in the consumption of digital news, there is often a phenomenon called incidental exposure to information, which occurs when the person who accesses the Internet with motivations such as entertainment or sociability, meets the news without looking for it directly (Serrano-Puche. Fernandez & Rodriguez-Virgili,
- 2018) . News consumption thus becomes a by-product of online activities. It ceases to be an independent activity and forms part of a continuous connection to the online environment, in such a way that news are not sought per se, but still reach the user mixed with other social and entertainment content, therefore making news devoid of context and hierarchy.
Considering the above aspects, new examinations on disinformation and the relationship between information use and trust in media content seems to be pertinent (Kalogeropoulos. Suiter, & Eisenegger, 2019). Numerous previous investigations highlight variables such as group membership, partisanship or membership in a certain party, which affect the credibility attributed to the media (Gronke & Cook, 2007; Lee & Shin. 2014; Oyedeji, 2007; Paniagua et al., 2020). In the following section we examine the relationship between the media ecosystem, disinformation, and social polarization. using Venezuela as a case study.