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Are we exaggerating the power of disinformation?

We journalists assume it’s a problem, but plenty of independent data says no

Editors note: This article was originally published on Entrepreneurial Journalism, created by James Breiner. You can sign up for his newsletter here.

Consider this blog entry a follow-up to my recent post, Economists ask, Does advertising actually work?

The alarm bells started ringing for me when I saw the article in First Draft discrediting a Rolling Stone story that depicted anti-vaxers as pawns of right-wing conspiracy theorists. The anti-vaxers were taking a deworming drug for animals to protect themselves from covid-19, were suffering overdoses, and were overwhelming Oklahoma City hospitals.

First Draft is an organization dedicated to fighting disinformation and very much aligned with my own fears about the pernicious influence of right-wing extremists and conspiracy theorists. So I was surprised at how critical First Draft was of progressive media outlets (the BBC, The Guardian, Newsweek) that uncritically republished summaries of Rolling Stone‘s article when a basic fact check would have revealed the story was bogus, based on a single second-hand source.

Three days later, First Draft followed up by publishing a newsletter that questioned the assumption behind their own mission: “Is Misinformation the Big Problem We Think it is?”

The voices we don’t hear

The First Draft newsletter referred to an article in Harper’s Magazine“Bad News: Selling the story of disinformation,” by Joseph Bernstein. He cites several studies by experts–hereherehere, and here–that all question the effectiveness of internet advertising or disinformation campaigns.

All these studies cast doubt on what Bernstein calls Big Disinfo, a group of institutions that aims to alarm us about fake news. He lists “the institutions that publish most frequently and influentially about disinformation: Harvard University, the New York Times, Stanford University, MIT, NBC, the Atlantic Council, the Council on Foreign Relations, etc.”

Then he observes, “That the most prestigious liberal institutions of the pre-digital age are the most invested in fighting disinformation reveals a lot about what they stand to lose, or hope to regain.” These institutions want to restore themselves as an “authoritative voice” in society, he says.

The article of faith of big Disinfo, namely that internet advertising and disinformation can sell us anything, “creates a world of persuasion that is legible and useful to capital—to advertisers, political consultants, media companies, and of course, to the tech platforms themselves. It is a model of cause and effect in which the information circulated by a few corporations has the total power to justify the beliefs and behaviors of the demos [the common people].”

Are we that gullible?

One of the articles cited by Bernstein found that Facebook sharing of links from fake-news domains (defined as those publishing “knowingly false or misleading content”) was “quite rare” during the 2016 campaign. Those most likely to do so were people age 65 and older from all political affiliations.

The authors, from Princeton and New York University, estimated that the average adult saw and remembered only 1.14 fake news articles from the campaign. (See the data in “Less than you think: Prevalence and predictors of fake news on Facebook,” by Andrew Guess, Jonathan Nagler, and Joshua Tucker, in ScienceAdvances, 2019.)

Of course we are bombarded by anti-vax and pro-vax campaigns, fueled and financed by the polarizing political narratives of our two-party system. But who is actually being persuaded to change their mind? Mostly these campaigns solidify the views of extremists on both ends of the political spectrum.

In search of trustworthy information

All of this is not to minimize the threat of documented efforts by Russia and China to flood our digital feeds with information aimed at undermining democracy and creating distrust of our institutions. But much of it is ignored, as we saw above.

The vast majority of Americans are moderates, despite what you see on cable TV or in social media, and they are looking for non-political sources they can trust. With lives at stake in the covid-19 crisis, news consumers around the world returned to trusted news brands for information, according to Reuters Institute’s 2021 Digital News Report.

Americans generally occupy the middle ground, despite the Trump Derangement Syndrome, in which liberals for five years have been predicting the collapse of American Democracy, and despite the previous Obama Derangement Syndrome, in which conservatives for eight years predicted a communist takeover of health care and a social welfare state.

What we got instead from the American political system under Obama was modest change from mainstream policies. And under Trump, also modest change. American democracy survived both of those presidents, and Trump was not re-elected. By contrast, Trump-like presidents in Eastern Europe and Latin America have been rigging elections and dismantling the institutions of democracy–the legislature and courts–and establishing de facto dictatorships.

We need to take these threats seriously. But the American people are more moderate and have more common sense than we give them credit for. And we journalists ought to take that into account. We have to be more aware of our own biases. We have to be more skeptical about accepting stories that feed into our preferred narratives about politics. Otherwise, we are part of the problem.

Research referred to above:

Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election,” by Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2017.

Social Media, Political Polarization,and Political Disinformation: A Review of the Scientific Literature, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, 2018.

Subprime Attention Crisis. Advertising and the Time Bomb at the Heart of the Internet. by Tim Hwang. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.

More From The Fix: Is Facebook really helping spread COVID-19?

Photo by Filip Mishevski on Unsplash


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