Michael Hameleers (PhD, University of Amsterdam) is Assistant Professor in Political Communication at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR), Amsterdam, Netherlands. His research interests include populism, framing, (affective) polarization, and disinformation. Recently, most of his research is focused on the effects of misinformation and the effectiveness of corrective information.
Michael Hameleers recently released a report on citizen perceptions of Covid-19 dis- and misinformation in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and the US. One of his findings was that while misinformation perceptions can lead people to seek more information, content perceived as disinformation can lead people to shut down and refuse to comply with guidelines. Indeed he mentioned that the latter trend is more pronounced in the UK.
How do you explain that? What determines whether people will perceive content as mis- or disinformation? Also were you able to determine what were the most prevalent sources of perceived disinformation (social media, political figures, the press, etc)?
Michael Hameleers: This is indeed the case. It is hard to explain the exact drivers of country-level differences. The patterns are mirrored in all national settings, but the distinction between mis- and disinformation and its relationship to compliance was strongest in the UK. At the time of data collection, trust in the media was relatively low in the UK. Low levels of trust may explain the correspondence between disinformation and low compliance – the less people trust the media, the less likely they are to follow instructions communicated by outlets deemed untrustworthy. However, we do not have solid empirical evidence to back this up at this stage.
The distinction between mis- and disinformation perceptions is mainly a matter of trust in the honesty and transparency of the press. Higher levels of trust in the media’s intentions to inform are not likely to be associated with disinformation perceptions – which assume the perception of intentions to mislead. In that sense, disinformation perceptions resonate with a populist worldview (that the media elites mislead us deliberately). Misinformation corresponds more with uncertainty, and the acceptance of disagreement in a crisis situation: ‘honest’ mistakes are easily made in the setting of little information. Unfortunately, we know little about the exact media associated with mis- and disinformation perceptions. But if we look at our measures of trust, we see that people tend to have a lot of trust in the WHO, national health organizations and mainstream media – and markedly little trust in social media (e.g., Twitter and Facebook). Before the crisis, trust in legacy media was much lower. People thus tend to trust the ‘old’ media in a setting of uncertainty and high stakes.
Can you share any more information about the commonalities or differences you identified in regards to the four countries you surveyed?
Michael Hameleers: We see many similarities: disinformation perceptions lead to more news avoidance across all settings – which may have severe ramifications for the extent to which people follow instructions and update their beliefs on the virus as the crisis progresses. In information seeking, we see some relevant differences: in the US and the UK, people tend to seek more information if they perceive more misinformation (meaning that they think that information is false without being intentionally misleading). This may be a positive democratic implication: perceiving that information is not accurate should stimulate the search for additional information. However, in these two countries, disinformation resulted in significantly less information seeking. These results suggest that media habits (approach and avoidance) are more polarized in the US and UK compared to the Netherlands and Germany.
Do you think the politicisation of coronavirus, which is quite pronounced in the US for example, encourages people to interpret misinformation as disinformation in an attempt to see a motivation behind a specific framing?
Michael Hameleers: Definitely – the associations people make are not necessarily accurate, but also reflect a confirmation bias: believing that the elites (and ‘mainstream’ media) are lying to the people may lead people to attach the disinformation label to accurate or unintentionally inaccurate information. Likewise, information coming from opposed parties is more likely to be seen as intentionally misleading – corresponding to a hostile media bias. Political cleavages may thus also influence the extent to which people see information from the other side as intentionally misleading or fabricated.
Do you think that it is more important now than ever to invest in media literacy programmes so that people can get informed about the virus and the appropriate measures to protect themselves?
Michael Hameleers: Yes, it is very important that people can recognize false information and particularly make the distinction between ‘honest’ mistakes that exist because of a lack of information and disinformation that intends to mislead them. What is important here is to make sure that these programmes reach people across partisan or ideological divides. Some people may be likely to avoid information that challenges their existing perceptions and ask them to change their behaviours. Thus, practical applications should make sure to use a format that overcomes resistance from strong partisans, and approach people in a way that does not come off as an attack.
You also produced a research paper on the effectiveness of media literacy and fact-checking programmes to combat disinformation in the US and Netherlands. Can you share some of the key findings? Are there any lessons that we can apply to the Covid-19 infodemic?
Michael Hameleers: Fact-checkers and media literacy interventions can correct factual misconceptions – and their combination works best. In other words, the most effective way to combat mis- or disinformation seems to be a combination of media literacy programmes and fact-checking. Importantly, fact-checkers are more effective in terms of direct effects, but media literacy messages may be more effective as they offer citizens critical skills to recognize misinformation themselves, preventing negative consequences rather than offering a post-hoc correction. Applied to the pandemic, also considering the fact that there is a lot of false information reaching citizens via many digital media platforms, media literacy interventions are important. Practically, governments can disseminate official guidelines on how people can distinguish mis- and disinformation, also offering practical recommendations on where they can find truthful information. As trust in official sources is high during the crisis, we might as well profit from this to reach the audience with tips and tricks.