Negative downstream effects of disinformation discourse: Evidence from the US

Jungherr, Andreas; Rauchfleisch, Adrian

Threats of disinformation feature strongly in public discourse. Digital communication environments are characterized as being especially vulnerable to intentional disinformation or accidental misinformation. Although selected scientific findings feature strongly in this discourse, the overall tenor between public and scientific discourse differs. While public discourse is generally alarmist about the perceived dangers of disinformation in digital communication environments, scientific discourse is much more skeptical. While there is agreement that digital communication environments feature false information, their actual reach and persuasive appeal in Western democracies is heavily contested. Accordingly, indiscriminate warnings against disinformation risk overestimating their effects and associated dangers. Balanced accounts, documenting the presence of digital disinformation while accounting for empirically established limits, offer a promising alternative to indiscriminate warnings. We test this in a preregistered experiment in the US. 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 did bring downstream effects, increasing respondents’ support for heavily restrictive regulation of speech in digital communication environments. T2 did not have these negative downstream effects. While T1 lowered the satisfaction with the current state of democracy, no effect could be observed regarding the support for democratic practices and democratic governance. T2, in contrast, did not have any significant effects. Still, we see a positive correlation among all respondents between the perceived threat of disinformation to societies and skepticism toward democracy.