For a new working paper Adrian Rauchfleisch and I ran a survey-experiment in the US on the downstream effects of warnings against disinformation. In the paper “Negative downstream effects of disinformation discourse: Evidence from the US” we show that indiscriminate warnings against disinformation increased respondents’ perception of disinformation as a dangerous societal threat and carried negative downstream effects.
Indiscriminate warnings against disinformation lowered democratic satisfaction and heightened support for restrictive regulation of digital communication environments.
In contrast, balanced accounts – containing information about the presence and dangers of digital disinformation but also information about its limited reach and persuasive appeal – did lower threat perceptions and carried no negative downstream effects.
This shows that it matters how scientists, journalists, and politicians discuss the dangers of digital disinformation. Of course, it is not an option to ignore dangers of disinformation when they are real. But indiscriminate warnings also carry dangers.
Instead, in discussing disinformation public communicators should do so based on the full scope of reliable scientific evidence. In Western democracies, this means accounting for evidence indicating digital disinformation’s limited reach and persuasive appeal.
By exaggerating the dangers of digital communication environments for democracy, we might end up damaging the very thing we wish to protect. The stories we tell about digital media and their role in democracy and society matter. We need to choose well and choose responsibly.