2024/01/12 Andreas Jungherr

New publication: Negative Downstream Effects of Alarmist Disinformation Discourse: Evidence from the United States

As fears of disinformation are rising again in face of an international super-election year, this new publication might be timely:

In a survey-experiment Adrian Rauchfleisch and I show that alarmist warnings against disinformation carry significant unintended negative effects.

Alarmist warnings against disinformation increase peoples’ perception of disinformation as a dangerous societal threat, lower democratic satisfaction and heighten 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 alarmist warnings also carry dangers.

This should give us pause and make us reexamine the empirical evidence:

If various findings from political and communication science are correct that disinformation has limited reach and persuasive appeal and that disinformation is a drifting concept which is often used by those in power to delegitimize others academics should be very careful in exaggerating the dangers of disinformation in public discourse and push for balanced accounts of all the available evidence.

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.

Abstract: The threat of disinformation features strongly in public discourse, but scientific findings remain conflicted about disinformation effects and reach. Accordingly, indiscriminate warnings about disinformation risk overestimating its effects and associated dangers. Balanced accounts that document the presence of digital disinformation while accounting for empirically established limits offer a promising alternative. In a preregistered experiment, U.S. respondents were exposed to two treatments designed to resemble typical journalistic contributions discussing disinformation. The treatment emphasizing the dangers of disinformation indiscriminately (T1) raised the perceived dangers of disinformation among recipients. The balanced treatment (T2) lowered the perceived threat level. T1, but not T2, had negative downstream effects, increasing respondent support for heavily restrictive regulation of speech in digital communication environments. Overall, we see a positive correlation among all respondents between the perceived threat of disinformation to societies and dissatisfaction with the current state of democracy.

Andreas Jungherr and Adrian Rauchfleisch. 2024. Negative Downstream Effects of Alarmist Disinformation Discourse: Evidence from the United States. Political Behavior. Online first. doi: 10.1007/s11109-024-09911-3

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