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Disinformation: emergency or false problem?

Sacha Altay
Sacha Altay
post-doctoral fellow at the University of Oxford within the Reuters Institute
Lê Nguyên Hoang
Lê Nguyên Hoang
Co-founder and President of Tournesol.app
Key takeaways
  • Currently, it is estimated that the consumption of fake news varies between 0.6% and 7% depending on the country.
  • But this only takes into account one type of disinformation, of which there are three main definitions: the factual aspect, the psychological impact and the informational exposure of the general public.
  • This latter involves problems such as mute news, which obscures key issues from media attention or flooding where the media is swamped with unreliable information.
  • An effective counter-measure is to increase the general population's interest in reliable information, which involves more trust in the media.

“You are Fake News.” These words, uttered by for­mer US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, illus­trate the extent to which the prob­lem of dis­in­for­ma­tion runs through soci­ety. Despite his rhetor­i­cal use of the term, dis­in­for­ma­tion is con­sid­ered a real phe­nom­e­non of con­cern to polit­i­cal author­i­ties. At worst, it can be respon­si­ble for moral pan­ic1 where caus­es of cur­rent prob­lems are attrib­uted to disinformation.

Let’s remem­ber, though, that the phe­nom­e­non of dis­in­for­ma­tion is as old as human soci­ety. Indeed, ancient myths or the famous pro­pa­gan­da of the 20th Cen­tu­ry can be right­ly con­sid­ered as dis­in­for­ma­tion. The only rad­i­cal changes are the chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and the pos­si­bil­i­ties of dis­sem­i­na­tion. “The Inter­net has changed the way humans com­mu­ni­cate. So, there are new forms of dis­in­for­ma­tion that have emerged, although dis­in­for­ma­tion itself is not a new phe­nom­e­non,” argues Sacha Altay, a post-doc­tor­al researcher at Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty and a doc­tor in exper­i­men­tal psy­chol­o­gy, who spe­cialis­es in issues of dis­in­for­ma­tion and trust in the media.

Defining disinformation

Do these new forms of dis­in­for­ma­tion deserve all the atten­tion they get? Indeed, in addi­tion to the polit­i­cal body, many sci­en­tists have become inter­est­ed in the phe­nom­e­non, too. Notably, the aim is to pre­vent dis­sem­i­na­tion of dis­in­for­ma­tion or to pre­vent peo­ple from adher­ing to erro­neous infor­ma­tion by devel­op­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal tech­niques to try to counter its effect2. How­ev­er, it remains dif­fi­cult to say if it deserves so much attention. 

In order to do so, we must first look at the def­i­n­i­tion of dis­in­for­ma­tion. There are three main def­i­n­i­tions: the first focus­es on the fac­tu­al aspect. In oth­er words, is the infor­ma­tion true or false? The sec­ond focus­es on the psy­cho­log­i­cal impact: does the infor­ma­tion lead to a biased view of real­i­ty in indi­vid­u­als? Final­ly, the last one sug­gests focus­ing on the infor­ma­tion­al expo­sure of the gen­er­al pub­lic; this def­i­n­i­tion is broad­er and includes infor­ma­tion that is fac­tu­al, but which takes the place of more impor­tant information.

Cur­rent­ly, it is esti­mat­ed that the con­sump­tion of fake news ranges from 0.6 to 7% depend­ing on the country.

The fac­tu­al def­i­n­i­tion has the advan­tage of being sim­ple to iden­ti­fy and study. It allows for easy col­lec­tion of quan­ti­ta­tive data on the preva­lence of fake news, its con­sump­tion and how it cir­cu­lates. Cur­rent­ly, it is esti­mat­ed that the con­sump­tion of fake news in this sense varies between 0.6% and 7% depend­ing on the coun­try3

In this sense, how­ev­er, it is ques­tion­able whether fake news is a prob­lem. For Lê Nguyên Hoang, a doc­tor of math­e­mat­ics, sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tor and co-cre­ator of the Tour­nesol algo­rithm, this is not the case. “Rad­i­cal­ly false infor­ma­tion or infor­ma­tion that alters peo­ple’s vision is not the core of the prob­lem. In my opin­ion, it is more on the side of the third def­i­n­i­tion, i.e. dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns organ­ised to high­light cer­tain infor­ma­tion rather than oth­ers, the harass­ment of jour­nal­ists, the cre­ation of false accounts to ampli­fy cer­tain con­tent, the set­ting up of false debates, etc.” The researcher attests to this with a sci­en­tif­ic report doc­u­ment­ing the var­i­ous meth­ods of dig­i­tal and transna­tion­al repres­sion of infor­ma­tion4.  

Identifying the source of the problem

For Sacha Altay, the most promi­nent prob­lem seems to be peo­ple’s lack of inter­est in infor­ma­tion and pol­i­tics in gen­er­al. “Most peo­ple and some sec­tions of the pop­u­la­tion, such as young peo­ple from work­ing-class back­grounds, do not care about dis­in­for­ma­tion. They don’t fol­low news and pol­i­tics very much. We real­ly must keep that in mind. One of the major objec­tives is not so much to increase vig­i­lance as it is to raise inter­est and restore trust in reli­able information.”

Con­sump­tion of dis­in­for­ma­tion by the French5.

Fur­ther­more, a strong argu­ment to put the prob­lem of false infor­ma­tion into per­spec­tive is that there is no con­sis­tent link between the con­sump­tion of arti­cles, and the atti­tude of indi­vid­u­als or their behav­iour. This is well known in psy­chol­o­gy lit­er­a­ture, and US behav­iour­al sci­en­tists have stat­ed this in black and white in a report aimed at pro­mot­ing actions to the pub­lic6

“Sim­ply explain­ing the sci­en­tif­ic find­ings about covid-19 and the asso­ci­at­ed risks will very rarely lead to a change in atti­tudes and behav­iours, even if peo­ple under­stand and accept the facts, and even if they report that they should behave dif­fer­ent­ly giv­en the new infor­ma­tion,” he says. The main rea­sons why peo­ple do not adopt cer­tain behav­iours when they know they should are due to cog­ni­tive pref­er­ences for old habits, for­get­ful­ness, small incon­ve­niences in the present moment, pref­er­ences for what requires the least effort, and moti­vat­ed reasoning.

Yet, ulti­mate­ly, this is what the polit­i­cal body wants to do, as is the case with crit­i­cal think­ing edu­ca­tion: reduce false beliefs, improve safe­ty, pro­mote pub­lic health, etc. Tack­ling dis­in­for­ma­tion might there­fore be a red her­ring, as we do not always con­sume infor­ma­tion to sat­is­fy epis­temic goals. Sacha Altay gives us a con­crete exam­ple to illus­trate this point, “in the US, peo­ple who con­sume pro-Trump infor­ma­tion are pro-Trump. The arti­cles serve more to jus­ti­fy a kind of atti­tude they already had towards their polit­i­cal views than fac­tu­al accuracy.” 

The researcher relies main­ly on a 2016 study7 that took place dur­ing the US pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, which shows that few peo­ple con­sume fake news out of a spir­it of con­tra­dic­tion, in oth­er words to try to sort out what is true from what is false, but rather to rein­force their worldview. 

Recognising the more subtle forms

Lê Nguyên Hoang also argues that we should stop focus­ing on dis­in­for­ma­tion but sug­gests that the argu­ment of incon­sis­tent links between beliefs, atti­tudes and behav­iours is con­tex­tu­al. “If we con­sid­er the sta­tus quo – that most peo­ple’s behav­iour is good – then this argu­ment is rel­e­vant. But if you look at an issue like cli­mate change, inac­tion is dan­ger­ous. The fact that the sub­ject is not suf­fi­cient­ly cov­ered in the media can, in my opin­ion, be con­sid­ered a form of disinformation.”

What the researcher describes here is the prob­lem of mute news. This is a per­ni­cious form of dis­in­for­ma­tion that con­sists of obscur­ing a key issue from media atten­tion that often under­lies the con­cerns of the pub­lic and polit­i­cal bodies. 

Sacha Atlay qual­i­fies the point, “on the sub­ject of cli­mate, it seems that it is the social media agen­da of polit­i­cal par­ties that has become a pre­dic­tor of the pres­ence of this sub­ject in the news.” Echo­ing mute news, the researcher men­tions anoth­er tech­nique often used: flood­ing. “This con­sists of flood­ing the infor­ma­tion space with unre­li­able infor­ma­tion in order to increase uncer­tain­ty and reduce con­fi­dence in reli­able infor­ma­tion”, explains Sacha Altay. 

Indeed, cli­mate issues seem to be increas­ing­ly cov­ered by the media, as recent stud­ies show8, although this depends on the coun­try. For exam­ple, in Rus­sia, the country’s cli­mate pol­i­cy is nev­er ques­tioned by the offi­cial news­pa­pers9. In West­ern coun­tries, the cli­mate prob­lem is often dis­cussed at the lev­el of com­mu­ni­ca­tion; some groups doing so are spe­cialised in flood­ing and are among the main pro­duc­ers of often mis­lead­ing infor­ma­tion10 on cli­mate, ahead of sci­en­tif­ic insti­tu­tions or reli­able media. 

In con­clu­sion, despite the ini­tial oppo­si­tion, both researchers seem to agree on the impor­tance of increas­ing peo­ple’s inter­est in reli­able infor­ma­tion, which gen­er­al­ly involves trust in the media. And even if, in the cur­rent con­text, our infor­ma­tion ecosys­tems are colos­sal, high­light­ing the issues around dis­in­for­ma­tion is nec­es­sary for the well-being of soci­ety as a whole.

Julien Hernandez