What are the impacts of disinformation?

We dread it because it shakes the democratic foundations of our societies and threatens people’s physical and psychological health. In fact, disinformation has effects that are increasingly well documented. What are they?  
What are the impacts of disinformation?
Disinformation and anxiety: partners of choice 

Fake news generally spreads farther by exploiting strong emotions, like fear and disgust. At least, that’s what’s suggested by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study published in Science in 2018. 

What’s more, believing fake news is a prelude to anxiety, especially during an epidemic. A recent survey on the pandemic and its psychological and behavioural effects was conducted by a team at the Université de Sherbrooke. Its preliminary results show that one out of six Quebecers would be likely to suffer from anxiety or post-traumatic stress related to the pandemic. They also show that believing in fake news and conspiracy theories could “accentuate the stress factors”. 

More confusion 

Who’s telling the truth? That’s the nagging question asked by many citizens, increasingly confused at contradictory information sources and the growing volume of fake news. This disorientation is the first mischief done by disinformation. It is identified by the London School of Economics and Political Science in a report published in 2018. Verified and verifiable information is lost in an ocean of content. Little by little, this affects the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood and generates more and more confusion. 

 Increased confusion leads to a loss of confidence in media, political or social institutions. This generates cynicism, disengagement and apathy. (As they lose trust in their institutions, people are no longer interested in playing their role as citizens). In addition to its harmful influence on public morale, the phenomenon represents a threat for democracy, the report concludes.  

Decline of democratic culture 

In the West, the growing lack of confidence in democratic structures is one of the leading effects of disinformation. The phenomenon worries the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). In a recent report, it expressed its fear of “lies and distortions that threatens the integrity of public discourse, debate and democracy”. 

Québec researchers Florian Sauvageau and Simon Thibault summed up the problem in the collective work Les fausses nouvelles, nouveaux visages, nouveaux défis (2018): “Many are worried about the impact of disinformation on the quality of our democratic experience, already endangered by the technical infrastructure of the Web by feeding us information that reflects our preferences and thus confines us to echo chambers”. 

Threats to public health  

By cultivating fear of vaccines or spreading erroneous medical information, “fake news” is the greatest “potential threat to public health”. That’s according to a quantitative study by the Medical University of Gdansk (Poland), published in 2018. 

More recently, researchers at the University of East Anglia, in the United Kingdom, showed that fake news on COVID-19 tends to circulate faster than real news and “makes disease outbreaks worse”. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres is very worried about this. The world faces “a dangerous epidemic of misinformation,” he warned last April. At the First WHO Infodemiology Conference held by the World Health Organization in July, it reiterated the importance of developing practices to ”prevent, detect and respond to dis- and misinformation”.  

Exacerbation of socio-cultural tensions 

Researcher Claire Wardle is one of the world’s leading authorities on disinformation — which she prefers to call “information disorder”. In 2017, in a report commissioned by the Council of Europe and written in collaboration with famous Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan, she reminded us that fake news very often “sharpens existing socio-cultural divisions using nationalistic, ethnic, racial and religious tensions”. 

Even worse, according to American political scientist Kelly M. Greenhill, cited by Wardle, “these types of messages enable discriminatory and inflammatory ideas to enter public discourse and to be treated as fact. Once embedded, these ideas can in turn be used to create scapegoats, normalize prejudice, harden us-versus-them mentalities…” A recent example: the violent acts committed against people from Asian communities, blamed by association as “responsible” for the COVID-19 pandemic. 

 Growth of violence 

By sharpening social tensions, disinformation can lead to violent actions – whether committed during a domestic disagreement, or collective in nature.  

An example, cited in 2017 by American researcher Samantha Stanley, was the riot caused by a mob of 500 people in Myanmar “following an unsubstantiated rumor posted on Facebook that a Muslim tea shop owner raped a Buddhist employee”.  Two people were killed during this unfortunate incident. 

These phenomena are unlikely to wane in a digital universe dominated by algorithms that organize information into echo chambers that reduce the diversity of the sources to which each individual is exposed. Vigilance is more essential than ever.  


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