Disinformation has always been with us. Roman generals used it, as did religious leaders during the Black Plague, to persecute religious groups . Later, disinformation was used again by religious and political leaders during the Salem Witch trials, and in the 20th century, disinformation has been used to destabilize regimes and governments that were considered problematic.
What is new is that the internet and social media have magnified the speed at which disinformation can be spread and has also placed this ability to spread disinformation into the hands of everyone, not just political or religious leaders. Teens, tradies, and technicians can spread or at least continue the spread of disinformation through social media.
Understanding the meaning of some terms is important before we get too far into this topic.
Disinformation is creating and distributing intentionally false information, usually for political purposes. The most recent example of this is the claim by Trump that the 2020 election was stolen. As mentioned above, governments, including American governments, have used this type of political disinformation to overthrow other regimes. This was one of the rare times a President used political disinformation against the American political establishment.
This is spreading false information such as lies, pranks, rumours, and insults.
This is a term used by the World Health Organisation to describe an overabundance of information, some of which is accurate and some not. This overabundance makes it difficult for people to determine what are trustworthy sources of information and what to believe . An example of an infodemic is all the information available during the COVID pandemic. Determining reliable sources from those pushing a particular angle was often challenging.
While disinformation and misinformation have particular definitions, both are often subsumed under the more generic term “fake news,” which is the term that will be used in this article.
Fake news has a cost that impacts us as consumers, which we do not consider. This cost is both personal and financial.
A study in 2020 found that of the 720 million reviews of products on Amazon, 42% were fake or unreliable.
Another study carried out by Jesper Akesson, Robert W. Hahn, Robert D. Metcalfe, and Manuel Monti-Nussbaum on the impact of fake reviews on demand and welfare found that:
Hence there is a financial cost not only when we buy inferior products but there is also the cost of replacing those items with items that are fit for purpose.
The other cost, often not considered because it is not quantified in monetary or dollar amounts, is the loss of trust and confidence that deception and fake news creates.
Most people believe fake news and disinformation are a problem. This is supported by a survey by the Oliver Wyman Forum that found more than 80% of over 125,000 people stated disinformation was a problem, and almost a third said they had been a victim of fake news .
The word ‘victim’ in the above survey is interesting. People are not simply annoyed or frustrated that they have been taken in by false news; there is a sense of being a victim. Feelings of anger, shame, and betrayal are often common in a victim’s experience. This indicates the strength of the impact of fake news for those people who believe it and then find out it is false.
The erosion of trust and confidence has another subtle impact. It can lead to individuals feeling disconnected and alone from the wider community. The sense of distrust, the fear of being “taken in” or conned by fake news, and the sense of disconnection can create anxiety, loneliness, and depression. Our sense of community and belonging is predicated on our ability to trust the world. When fake news undermines that trust, the feeling can be alienation from the community and isolation.
Apart from the speed and all-pervasive presence of the internet and social media, several factors contribute to the problem of fake news.
The reality is that fake news and lies are less expensive to create in the marketplace than truth . Fake news is also 70% more likely to be re-tweet or forwarded than the truth .
When fake news and lies are cheaper to create and more than 70% more likely to be spread than the truth, it makes for a massive problem.
There are two reasons why fake news is more likely to be spread.
We are more likely to believe something, without further investigation, if it confirms a previous belief or view we held.
We all evaluate facts through the lens of our beliefs, views, and experiences. Most of the news and information we receive is not first-hand; it is through the press. So, whether we believe what we receive depends on our trust in the media and/or people conveying the news. When we don’t trust a news source, we will likely view it as not credible or trustworthy and so not believe what is being said, even if it is the truth.
The rise of the internet has negatively impacted traditional news sources, particularly newspapers. Social media has expanded dramatically to fill the void left by newspapers. A majority of information on social media is unverified and rarely fact-checked. People don’t have the time to seek out varied and reliable sources of information to check what they are hearing or reading. They are more likely to go to sources that confirm their views and beliefs.
This means that when other sources of information are presented, and the person does not trust that source, they are more likely to trust fake news that reinforces their existing view of the world.
An experiment was conducted with Facebook users to test whether emotional contagion would occur. Emotional contagion is when a person passes on their emotional state to another person. Usually, this happens when people interact face-to-face. This experiment explored whether contagion would occur on social media.
It found that when positive expressions of emotional content were reduced in the News Feed, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts. When negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results indicated that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks.
Hence, when fake news is being spread more easily on social media, and it confirms people’s existing view of their world, there will also be an emotional contagion that will exacerbate the impact of the fake news.
We all have a responsibility to do what we can to mitigate the impact of fake news, particularly given the harm it can do to individuals, communities, and ultimately to governments.
Social media platforms are beginning to address this issue. However, they have been slow in uptake and often only address the problem when they have received bad publicity or the threat of legal action.
Businesses have a responsibility to act ethically when providing product reviews. Fake reviews generated to sell inferior products for a profit are not ethical or authentic. It is also essential for businesses to communicate with the public and their client base about the facts, not just broadcast them. One business that did this well was the European Broadcasting Union. They hired additional people to engage with consumers and respond to social media posts and found this an effective way of communicating about the facts .
As customers, we also have a responsibility. The Oliver Wyman Forum mentioned above found that people in the 45 and older age cohort were the least disinformed of the consumers the Forum surveyed because they have learned an evidence-based approach to consuming online information. They are the most likely to check sources, read rather than skim articles, and get information from trusted sources such as peer-reviewed research journals, government entities, and subject matter experts, or independent thought leaders .
We can all do these practices to reduce the amount of disinformation and fake news.