What I found while studying news, disinformation and the audience they (mostly) share

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How could someone possibly believe that?

Like many journalists and media researchers, I’ve found myself asking this question about disinformation that has gone viral via social media. Though I’ve spent years learning how and why disinformation is created, I’d never had the opportunity to explore the motivations of the people who believe and share these stories. That is what led me to do more in-depth research during my year as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford.

Over the course of six months, from December 2018 through the spring of 2019, I conducted in-depth interviews with nine Americans who were selected for their relationships with both disinformation and mainstream news. I had planned to interview more participants, but life circumstances got in the way.

Through these conversations, I came to the conclusion that the media industry isn’t facing a disinformation problem as much as an engagement problem. It isn’t merely the insidious and convincing nature of disinformation that drives people to consume, believe or share false news, but is also a profound disconnection from the mainstream media and how it works.

The final report from this research is available in full at the Project Disconnect website. Knowing that reading a lengthy report on disinformation isn’t for everyone, I’ll give an overview of the insights and my conclusions derived from these participant interviews.

1. Distrust in the power of the media

The people I interviewed were wary of the power of the mainstream media, aided by social media, to shape public opinion. Even those with positive feelings about the news said they did not trust the media’s motivations or sense of responsibility in wielding the power to determine “good guys” and “bad guys“.

2. The media isn’t “one of us”

Many of those interviewed felt the national/regional media did not really care about them or their communities, as reporters only appeared during times of crisis. That said, most of them did not take in locally produced news even if it was available.

3. Difficulty discerning facts and opinions

Most interviewees said they found the media least credible when it was difficult to distinguish between facts and opinion in the reporting. The participants did not object to expressions of opinion in news in and of itself, but they took issue with news that seemed as if it were giving opinion disguised as factual reporting.

4. Information overload from news aggregators and social media

An overabundance of news stories, all of which are fed into news aggregators like Google News, Apple News and Flipboard, as well as social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook made it very difficult for the participants to figure out what to read, where it comes from and whom to believe. This confusion was amplified when pieces (or passages) of analysis were mixed in with factual news items.

5. Digital device “time sucks“

Everyone I spoke with uses digital devices, smartphones in particular, to access the internet. Most said they felt these devices were addictive, and that time spent on them was problematic, often creating problems in their personal lives.

6. The overestimation of disinformation

The participants said they believe that disinformation is a major concern and that propaganda and hoaxes are taking over the internet. Research shows this is not the case, but this exaggerated concern has led to disbelief fatigue among many.

7. Overestimation of media literacy skills

Each participant said they believed that they have an effective process and approach for discerning real news from intentionally false news. Most relied on Google searches to research claims, others trusted their gut. These approaches often can make the problem worse.

8. The creation of “bubbles“

All of the participants had carefully crafted their media and social media experiences. While some of them actively seek out opposing viewpoints, a few knowingly shield themselves from them.

9. The importance of community and lack thereof

The subject of community, both in real life and virtual, came up with most of the participants. Many had lost touch with one community only to find another of like-minded people, while others are still searching for a lasting connection.

10. Negative feelings about social media, especially Facebook

Every participant had used Facebook at one time, but many had recently left or dramatically cut back on their use of the platform. Only a few cited concerns about data privacy, but nearly all were concerned about how interactions on Facebook made them feel.

11. Life-altering events lead to a change of heart about institutions

More than half of the participants blamed some sort of pivotal life event for changing their view of institutions such as media, law enforcement, government, science and education.

The full report has much more detail on each of these themes, with added context from the participant interviews.

Summary conclusion

I’ll be upfront in that I can’t draw any grand societal conclusions from this research because it is a small sample set, but I do feel that I have a greater understanding of the audience for disinformation.

  • The primary problem facing the news industry as it pertains to the issue of disinformation is its deteriorating relationship with its audience. If the audience doesn’t trust the media’s motives or processes, it follows that it also wouldn’t have faith in such important journalistic practices as fact-checking.
  • Though it is easy to assume that those who believe disinformation are unintelligent, incurious or uncaring about the false news they help amplify, I found this not to be the case. The participants I spoke to were educated and exceedingly thoughtful about their media-consumption choices. I do hope you’ll take the time to dig further into their case studies and get a better idea of who they are.
  • The importance of context as it pertains to news and history cannot be overstated in understanding disinformation. People consume information through their own individual lenses, so one person’s news is another’s “fake news” — seen this way, all sides can believe they are right, and the opposing side wrong.
  • Everyone has their own filters, via conscious choice or applied unwittingly through technology, that dictate what information they will see and what they will believe.

As for me, this study was critical in determining the next step in my career path. This work and my conversations with these participants showed me the importance of healthy information communities. I believe robust local news sources and positive, personal interactions with journalists can be key to creating these healthy community connections, which, in turn, can drive more trust in the media overall. This sparked my interest in joining The Compass Experiment at the conclusion of my fellowship, so I could do my part to help local journalism grow and thrive.

For more detail on background research, participant case studies, insights and methodology, please download and read the full report.