| 30.06.2022

New study: Culture wars play a key role in spreading disinformation on social media

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Disinformation on social media is more than facts versus falsehoods or fake news. A new study at Hanken School of Economics shows that spreading disinformation is also an engagement program that encourages consumers to take sides in a culture war.

The study, originally published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, shows how disinformation circulates in social media through echo-chambers.

“Fact-checking is an important tool, but it can backfire. The reason is that people deeply vested in culture wars are likely to adopt their side’s identity. After all, fellow allies are more credible than perceived opponents. In consequence, participants potentially use any arguments that support their pre-existing views, including truths, half-truths, and opinions, as long as it helps them win culture wars”, Carlos Diaz Ruiz, assistant professor in marketing at Hanken, explains.

“Fact-checking can help in the first ‘seeding phase’ when malicious actors strategically insert deceptions, like fake news. However, fact-checking is less effective in the ‘echoing phase’, where participants co-create a confrontational fantasy that disseminates disinformation argumentatively.” 

Conspiracy theories about a flat Earth

Assistant Professor Diaz Ruiz and his colleague, Senior Lecturer Tomas Nilsson from the Linnaeus University, studied disinformation in the context of the flat Earth echo chamber on Youtube, a controversial group arguing that the Earth is not spherical but flat.

“Whereas their arguments are often dismissed as ignorant, flat earthers talk in a way that persuades growing segments of the population. We find that they appeal to pre-existing debates that their audience already discuss, for example, whether God exists or not”, Diaz Ruiz says.

By analyzing their rhetorical strategies, the study shows how flat earthers animate and stoke identity-based grievances. 

“As grudges intensify, back-and-forth argumentation becomes a form of ‘knowing’ in the world. The argument becomes impervious to fact-checking because it is not about facts but grievances and group identification”, Diaz Ruiz says.

Counterstrategies for policymakers

The study proposes a set of counterstrategies for policymakers. While it´s essential to maintain initiatives for identifying disinformation actors, flagging content, and fact-checking, also other counterstrategies are needed.

“For instance, the policymakers should identify the insider logic that the echo chamber on social media uses so that arguments are persuasive. For instance, if the group mistrusts authority figures, then a government employed scientist will be a less effective spokesperson than one that shares cultural values. Further, policymakers should diminish the financial incentives for social media platforms to profit from disinformation”, Diaz Ruiz states.


Photo: Simon Abrams/Unsplash