Misinformation and Disinformation Unpacked

The global debate over so-called ‘fake news’ has changed a lot in the last year. What began as concern over the narrow problem of completely made-up news stories has since sparked a renewed interest in the much broader issue of online misinformation. In a sense, the debate has gone full circle, with some of the most active participants now urging people to abandon the term ‘fake news’ to allow the broader issues to be discussed, and to disarm politicians and other powerful people that seek to ‘weaponise’ the term for their own ends.1

In this section we take a more global look at what is often incorrectly perceived as an American problem. We measure ‘concern over’ and ‘exposure to’ multiple forms of misinformation, and look at how both vary across countries. Based on how audiences perceive the problem, we consider different types of what our previous audience research suggests ordinary media users consider misinformation, including some content produced by the journalistic profession, as well as content produced outside.2 We also consider possible responses to the problem of misinformation, and uncover which of these audiences would most like to see.

Some National Variation in Concern over Different Types of Misinformation

In the ‘Executive Summary’ we described how, across all markets, concern over completely made-up news is often matched by concern over practices that have been partially legitimised by some in the journalistic profession.

This global picture remains fairly consistent when we drill down into individual countries. In the USA and the UK, the pattern is similar, with the either completely made-up stories or journalistic spin attracting the most widespread concern. But there are also some notable national differences. In some European countries, such as Norway and Austria, poor journalism is more concerning than completely made-up stories (notice also that concern over all types is low in Norway), perhaps due to a stronger tradition of objective reporting. Concern over the misuse of the term ‘fake news’ is also high in countries like the USA and Austria, where politicians have been using it to denigrate the news media in recent years. Concern over headlines that turn out to be adverts is more widespread than average in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. However, it is unclear whether this concern reflects differences in content.

Concern Greater amongst the Well-Informed

Perhaps unsurprisingly, concern over misinformation is generally greater among those with higher levels of interest in the news and lower levels of trust. Looking at how the data break down by different levels of news literacy is interesting, however, because it shows how concern goes up in line with literacy in some cases (made-up stories, spin, and poor journalism) but down in the case of satire.3

This is likely to be because those with higher levels of news literacy feel they are more likely to be able to spot satirical stories, and also have a clearer sense of what they should be concerned about. However, the data also throw doubt on the possible impact of attempts to increase news literacy, given that they suggest that an increase might lead people to be less trusting of some journalistic work.

Exposure to Completely Made-Up News is Low

This year we also measured people’s self-reported exposure to the different forms of misinformation people express concern over (not all of them are necessarily equally worrying). Clearly, exposure is much harder to measure than concern, because in some cases it relies on people’s ability to correctly identify information that has been deliberately designed to be misleading, and because what exactly constitutes misinformation is partly subjective. Even with this is mind, it is striking that, although concern over completely made-up news is high, self-reported exposure across all markets is relatively low (26%); considerably lower than exposure to poor journalism (42%) and spin (39%).

Exposure to Made-Up News is Higher than the US in Some Countries

Considering exposure to completely made-up news stories, the figure in the US is higher at 31%, but exposure is even more widespread in Eastern European countries like Hungary (42%) and Romania (38%), and Mediterranean countries like Greece (44%) and Turkey (49%). In the UK, the figure is 15%, and lower still in other Northern and Western European countries like Germany (9%), Denmark (9%), and the Netherlands (10%). In these countries, exposure to completely made-up news stories is typically less widespread than all of the other forms of misinformation we asked about.

Misinformation is an Offline Problem Too

Many people instinctively think of misinformation as an online problem, but all of our categories can be found offline too. It is striking that there is little difference in self-reported exposure to misinformation between those that mainly consume news offline and those that mainly consume news online (though in most cases exposure online is slightly higher). This runs counter to the frequent tendency in public discussions to associate misinformation with online media.

More striking still is that, in the US, self-reported exposure to completely made-up news stories is actually more widespread among those that mainly consume news offline (36%, compared to 29% for those that mainly consume news online). When we dig deeper into the data we see that this is mainly due to right-wingers that consume a lot of 24-hour TV news. This suggests that people are encountering left-leaning TV news and concluding that many of the stories they see are made up — something potentially exacerbated by the lack of overlap in content between left- and right-wing media.

People Want to See Action to Combat Misinformation

Given that concern over misinformation when it comes to news is high, it’s not surprising that most people think that media companies, technology companies, and government should all do more to combat it. Across the 23 markets where we asked this question, three-quarters (75%) agreed that media companies should do more to separate what is real and what is fake on the internet.4 The figure was slightly lower (71%) for technology companies like Facebook and Google. Just under two-thirds (61%) said government should do more.

People are Cautious about Government Intervention

Views about whether media or technology companies should do more are fairly consistent across countries, but as we described in the ‘Executive Summary’, we do see variation in terms of views about government intervention. Over 70% in Spain and South Korea think that the government should do more, but the figure drops below half in Sweden (48%) and Denmark (43%). The figure is lowest of all in the US (41%), perhaps because of a strong commitment to the First Amendment and freedom of speech.

Echoes of this view can be found across all countries when we consider news literacy. Support for action by technology and media companies rises among those with high news literacy, but starts to drop again in the case of government intervention. This may be because people with high news literacy are more sensitive to the risks of over-regulation and the consequences for free speech.

  1. https://firstdraftnews.com:443/fake-news-complicated
  2. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Lucas Graves, ‘News You Don’t Believe’: Audience Perspectives on Fake News. Oxford: RISJ, 2017.
  3. See Section I.1, ‘The Impact of Greater News Literacy’, for an explanation of how we measured news literacy.
  4. These questions were asked in UK, USA, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Turkey, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Canada.