New Article out in Political Communication: The Campaign Disinformation Divide in the 2019 UK General Election

In an article just published open-access in Political Communication with Andrew Chadwick and Johannes Kaiser, we shed new light on the role of different sources of campaign news in enabling citizens to discern between true and false information, and to share such information.

Based on two surveys on samples mirroring the UK adult population during the 2019 General Election in the UK, we found that the sources from which citizens got their campaign news mattered a great deal. The more respondents got their news from professional news organizations (broadsheets, tabloids, television, radio, and professional news websites) the more they were able to distinguish true from false information, and to share it. Conversely, the more respondents relied on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and private messaging apps such as WhatsApp) for campaign news, the less they were able to distinguish true from false information, and the more likely they were to share false than true information.

We term this bifurcation “campaign disinformation divide” and argue it has important implications for contemporary politics, as citizens increasingly rely on social media and messaging apps for news and professional news organizations face challenges to the viability of their business models and lower levels of public trust.

Perhaps most troublingly, we also found that false news, once they were believed, were more likely to be shared than true news, as the figure below highlights. This means that those combating the spread of falsehoods online face an uphill battle, as such falsehoods seem to enjoy a competitive advantage among users, as shown by other studies based in the United States.

This project was made possible by a collaboration with Opinium Research, a leading research company, which generously invited us to add our experiment to their multi-wave general election tracker surveys. The article will be part of a special issue on “Digital Campaigning in Dissonant Public Spheres”, guest edited by Karolina Koc Michalska, Ulrike Klinger, Andrea Römmele, and W. Lance Bennett.

This has been a fascinating study to design and I have learned a lot from it. I will be sure to take these findings on board in my work as Co-Rapporteur for the Council of Europe Committee of Experts on the Integrity of Online Information, where we are drafting a Guidance Note on countering the spread of online mis- and disinformation through fact-checking and platform design solutions in a human rights compliant manner. For me, the key policy implication of these findings is that reducing the spread and negative impacts of misinformation and disinformation in contemporary society will require both strengthening professional news organizations, including fact-checkers, and ensuring that the design of social media platforms and messaging apps promotes better-quality information.

To read the article, visit the Political Communication website, where you can also access an extensive Supplementary Materials file and replication data (via the Open Science Framework).

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