Briefing on the Threat of Online Misinformation
12. Jan. 2023
Fake news, misinformation and disinformation are amongst the most challenging issues in the world today. Fake news refers to false or misleading information that is presented as genuine news. Misinformation is similar however it is not necessarily presented as news and those who spread it believe it to be factual information. Disinformation on the other hand is false or misleading information deliberately spread to deceive, usually for personal or political gain. Whilst all referring to different aspects of a broader issue, it is important to recognise the terms fake news, misinformation and disinformation are often used interchangeably.
Our recent independent research highlights the severity of the issue, with 88% of survey respondents saying they feel at risk or have previously fallen victim to fake news. It is apparent that fake new and the ease at which it can now spread online poses a real threat to society. Dangerous disinformation campaigns, delivered through both public and private channels, drive societal polarisation and damage democracies. The spread of both misinformation and disinformation during elections undermines the democratic process, with voters often having to make decisions based off false information and fictitious stories created to undermine specific candidates. Additionally, social media and algorithms increasingly influence what news we consume, regularly presenting individuals with information that only reinforce their existing world views. As was shown during the COVID-19 pandemic fake news can also cost people their lives, with misinformation online leading to vaccine hesitancy and ultimately unnecessary deaths. Another part of the problem is that very few people take action after identifying fake news, despite the harm it can cause. According to Fullfact, only one fifth of social media users who encounter false information actually do anything about it.
Young people are particularly vulnerable to misinformation. Polis Analysis suggests there are two main reasons for this. Firstly, the majority of young people get their news from sources where misinformation is more prevalent, such as Facebook and Twitter. Therefore, they are more likely to be influenced by fake news as they are exposed to it at a higher rate than other age groups. Secondly, as well as being more exposed to harmful misinformation, a lack of education on the issue means young people are ill equipped to deal with such content when they encounter it. Ultimately more needs to be done to protect society and young people in particular from misinformation and fake news.
Polis Analysis advocates for governments to recognise their role in the issue of misinformation and for them to legislate, where necessary, to protect society from the threat that misinformation poses. However, state intervention alone will not tackle the problem. There are limits to the capability and capacity of the state to deal with misinformation, as well as ethical dilemmas regarding freedom of speech if a state actor attempted to regulate the truth. Therefore Polis Analysis supports a range of bottom-up solutions that aim to educate and empower citizens, equipping them with the necessary skills to identify misinformation wherever they encounter it. This next section briefly outlines the main top-down and bottom-up solutions identified by Polis Analysis from our research and surveys.
Through conducting our own independent research, we identified that many believe the government has a responsibility to intervene on misinformation and support legislation to stop the spread of fake news. Additionally, 74% of our survey participants believed that tackling fake news should be a government priority. The clear legal obligation of large social media companies to address the issue of fake news on their platforms should be established, however this alone would be insufficient in stopping the spread of misinformation. Private messaging services would remain free of regulation unless a more intrusive approach is adopted, such as Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation law, which aims to also police closed private platforms like WhatsApp. Polis Analysis does not support such invasive state action as the privacy and freedom of expression of citizens must ultimately be respected.
Given the limited capabilities of governments to ethically tackle the issue of fake news, Polis Analysis also supports a range of bottom-up solutions to complement government action. Education should be a key area of focus to protect young people from fake news, with schools and outside organisations helping to equip students with the critical thinking skills needed to differentiate fact from fiction. Dedicated workshops on fake news and misinformation should be made more widely available, expanding on current programmes focused on developing students’ research and questioning skills. Scaling up such programmes should also be complimented with an overhaul of national curriculums to develop critical thinking skills, in particular critical digital literacy, given the prevalence of fake news online. To focus on the UK, the DCMS Committee recommends that digital literacy becomes the fourth pillar of education, alongside reading, writing and maths, as a core part of the national curriculum. Such changes to the curriculum are vital in protecting young people from the threat of misinformation, with a 2018 report finding only 2% of children in the UK have the skills they need to identify fake news and half of teachers believing the current curriculum does not equip children with the required literacy skills.
As well as education, the provision of trustworthy and fact-based information by trustworthy media outlets is another important solution in addressing misinformation. Polis Analysis contributes to this by providing neutral fact-based analysis for readers globally and supports other organisations committed to this approach, as keeping citizens well-informed makes them likely to fall victim to misleading content online. Equally, Polis Analysis supports the view that individuals should be encouraged to adopt an open-minded approach to information consumption, with trustworthy news sources from across the political spectrum being accessible to all.
In conclusion, whilst Polis Analysis believes that governments should play an active role in combating fake news, potentially invasive and unethical legislation must be avoided. Bottom up solutions to misinformation, including fake news workshops, improving digital literacy, and the provision and accessibility of impartial fact-based news, must be prioritised.
 Polis Analysis Daily Briefing: The Influence of Fake News in the Course of Democracy (August 2021)
 Polis Analysis Daily Briefing: Global Trends 2040: What the World Will Look Like? (June 2021)