Why resilience to online disinformation varies between countries

Edda Humprecht at the Democratic Audit: “The massive spread of online disinformation, understood as content intentionally produced to mislead others, has been widely discussed in the context of the UK Brexit referendum and the US general election in 2016. However, in many other countries online disinformation seems to be less prevalent. It seems certain countries are better equipped to face the problems of the digital era, demonstrating a resilience to manipulation attempts. In other words, citizens in these countries are better able to adapt to overcome challenges such as the massive spread of online disinformation and their exposure to it. So, do structural conditions render countries more or less resilient towards online disinformation?

As a first step to answering this question, in new research with Frank Esser and Peter Van Aelst, we identified the structural conditions that are theoretically linked to resilience to online disinformation, which relate to different political, media and economic environments. To test these expectations, we then identified quantifiable indicators for these theoretical conditions, which allowed us to measure their significance for 18 Western democracies. A cluster analysis then yielded three country groups: one group with high resilience to online disinformation (including the Northern European countries) and two country groups with low resilience (including Southern European countries and the US).

Conditions for resilience: political, media and economic environments

In polarised political environments, citizens are confronted with different deviating representations of reality and therefore it becomes increasingly difficult for them to distinguish between false and correct information. Thus, societal polarisation is likely to decrease resilience to online disinformation. Moreover, research has shown that both populism and partisan disinformation share a binary Manichaeanworldview, comprising anti-elitism, mistrust of expert knowledge and a belief in conspiracy theories. As a consequence of these combined influences, citizens can obtain inaccurate perceptions of reality. Thus, in environments with high levels of populist communication, online users are exposed to more disinformation.

Another condition that has been linked to resilience to online disinformation in previous research is trust in news media. Previous research has shown that in environments in which distrust in news media is higher, people are less likely to be exposed to a variety of sources of political information and to critically evaluate those. In this vein,the level of knowledge that people gain is likely to play an important role when confronted with online disinformation. Research has shown that in countries with wide-reaching public service media, citizens’ knowledge about public affairs is higher compared to countries with marginalised public service media. Therefore, it can be assumed that environments with weak public broadcasting services (PBS) are less resilient to online disinformation….

Looking at the economic environment, false social media content is often produced in pursuit of advertising revenue, as was the case with the Macedonian ‘fake news factories’ during the 2016 US presidential election. It is especially appealing for producers to publish this kind of content if the potential readership is large. Thus, large-size advertising markets with a high number of potential users are less resistant to disinformation than smaller-size markets….(More)”.

Disinformation is particularly prevalent on social media and in countries with very many social media users, it is easier for rumour-spreaders to build partisan follower networks. Moreover, it has been found that a media diet mainly consisting of news from social media limits political learning and leads to less knowledge of public affairs compared to other media source. From this, societies with a high rate of social media users are more vulnerable to online disinformation spreading rapidly than other societies…(More)”.