Multiple New Studies Again Suggest The Internet Is Not Creating An ‘Infodemic’; Cable News, On The Other Hand…
from the but-of-course dept
Early on in the pandemic, the World Health Organization warned that the world was facing an “infodemic,” a mass outbreak of false and misleading information. While the WHO did not coin the term, it certainly made it popular, and contributed to the idea that it was the internet that was the leading cause of this infodemic. Today, it seems set in stone that the internet is the main vector for the spread of false information, and this is leading to all sorts of regulatory pushes by people all around the globe who think that the internet is to blame for all the bad stuff that is happening.
However, as we’ve noted over the years, the data… rarely seems to back up these claims. In 2019, we wrote about the book, Network Propaganda, written by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts, which presents a ton of evidence that lies about the 2016 election would go viral not because of the internet, but because of Fox News pushing them. In 2020 (pre-election), they released some follow-up research concerning disinformation about mail-in ballots and again found that the spread of misinformation was “elite-driven, mass-media led” and that social media “played only a secondary role.”
But maybe you question their methodology (though, you should read the details, because it’s pretty comprehensive and thorough). Nirit Weiss-Blatt points us to an article by journalists-turned-academics Nick Mathews and Mark Coddington, highlighting a bundle of recent research that again suggests little evidence of an online “infodemic,” but at least some evidence of Fox News being the real main venue for spreading disinformation.
They point to a few different studies, with the first one showing that most people actually turned to trustworthy sources of news during the pandemic, rather than less trustworthy sources.
We find that in 2020 online news consumption increased. Trustworthy news outlets benefited the most from the increase in web traffic. In the UK trustworthy news outlets also benefited the most from the increase in Facebook engagement, but in other countries both trustworthy and untrustworthy news outlets benefited from the increase in Facebook engagement. Overall, untrustworthy news outlets captured 2.3% of web traffic and 14.0% of Facebook engagement, while news outlets regularly publishing false content accounted for 1.4% of web traffic and 6.8% of Facebook engagement. People largely turned to trustworthy news outlets during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.
Next up was a study that involved surveying 14,000 people exploring whether or not the pandemic drove people into their own echo chambers. Again, we’ve highlighted other research in the past that suggests the internet actually decreases echo chambers, rather than increases them. Here, this new research more or less confirms the same thing regarding COVID info. The research looked at whether or not people focused on “like-minded” information (echo chambers) or explored more “cross cutting” (diverse) sources of information, and it showed a strong indication of cross-cutting information — though that was even stronger where citizens were most concerned about COVID and where governments were screwing up. In other words, when the government is incompetent, people inherently know it’s not healthy to stick in information bubbles.
A widely believed claim is that citizens tend to selectively expose themselves to like-minded information. However, when individuals find the information useful, they are more likely to consume cross-cutting sources. While crises such as terror attacks and pandemics can enhance the utility of cross-cutting information, empirical evidence on the role of real-world external threats in selective exposure is scarce. This paper examines the COVID-19 pandemic as a case study to test the extent to which citizens were exposed to information from cross-cutting sources on traditional and social media after the outbreak. Utilizing a two-wave panel survey among 14,218 participants across 17 countries – conducted before and after the initial outbreak – we show that citizens concerned about COVID-19 were more exposed to cross-cutting information on traditional and social media. The positive relationship with cross-cutting exposure to traditional news was stronger in countries where governments adopted less stringent policy responses, and in countries with greater pandemic severity and weaker democratic institutions. Our comparative approach thus sheds light on the social and political contexts in which cross-cutting exposure can occur.
I don’t think we should look at that as a ringing endorsement of incompetent governments, but it is still an interesting all around finding.
The final study looks at how one’s media consumption habits impacted their views on COVID mitigation strategies. Here they found that (after controlling for a bunch of factors), cable TV seemed to contribute the most to shaping one’s views, not the internet.
This research assesses how the environment for coronavirus disease (COVID) information contributed to the public’s willingness to support measures intended to mitigate the spread and transmission of the virus in the early stages of the pandemic. A representative sample of 600 Floridians was surveyed in April 2020. After controlling for sociodemographic factors, COVID anxiety, and knowledge about the virus, we find that components of the information environment mattered for public opinion related to mitigation policies. Television news sources, including local and national network news, center-left cable news (i.e., CNN, MSNBC), and Fox News, contributed to shaping policy support. The results highlight the importance of televised news coverage in shaping public opinion toward healthcare-related policies.
As Coddington and Mathews note, with the controls for partisanship, this study shows that this is not just correlation between conservatives pre-disposed to one view all watching Fox News, and liberals pre-disposed to the opposite view watching MSNBC. Instead, it strongly suggests that cable news contributes to their views:
The control for partisanship is a key factor here. It indicates that the influence of Fox News is not simply a product of conservatives being more likely to oppose mitigation and also more likely to watch Fox News. It suggests, instead, that the cable channels (and network TV news) may have had an influence apart from simple partisan audience self-selection. On the flip side, neither Facebook nor government communication (e.g., press conferences by Donald Trump and other elected officials) were significantly associated with views on mitigation.
So, now the studies seem to be coming fast and furious suggesting that cable news has much more of an impact on our views than the internet. And yet, I can bet that we’re just going to keep hearing about how everything is the fault of the internet. Of course, it seems worth noting that it’s often the very same mainstream media, either cable news itself, or publications owned by the same companies who own cable news… pushing these “infodemic” stories. It’s almost as if they have a reason to attack the internet, while ignoring their own culpability.