Misinformation, distrust and polarization in the context of a pandemic

Published on January 27, 2022 –The COVID-19 pandemic is having an amplifying impact on the dissemination and effects of mis- and disinformation. This is what Michael Hameleers and Rens Vliegenthart conclude in an expert vision published in a collection published by the WRR/KNAW. This report contains recommendations on how policy may be implemented to prevent the negative consequences of COVID-19 disinformation. Although misinformation is by no means a new phenomenon, the context of insecurity, crisis and competing interests creates a fertile breeding ground for both unintentionally false information (misinformation) and deliberately deceptive information (disinformation).

The effects of mis- and disinformation can mostly be understood in the context of decreasing (political) trust and increasing polarization. Due to the abundance of competing claims, conspiracy theories and delegitimizing attacks on the information dissemination by institutions, citizens are increasingly becoming uncertain about which ‘facts’ to believe. Besides, disinformation is often used strategically to amplify political cleavages, and undermine trust in the government, media and science. Especially in times of high need for acute information, as is the case during the pandemic, mis- and disinformation pose a huge threat on society.

The expert vision further discusses challenges for policy related to disinformation. An important recommendation is that policy should not only focus on disinformation itself, but also focus on restoring trust in factual (scientific) information. Misinformation is hard to stop or ban, but the breeding ground of low trust, low transparency over ‘honest mistakes’ made by institutions and polarization may be addressed. To do so, it is crucial to acknowledge feelings of fear, uncertainty and distrust, and to offer much more transparency over how knowledge is created – and how uncertainties are an integral part of the (scientific) process. Acknowledging misinformation –‘honest makes’ that are inevitable during situations of crisis could decrease the opportunity structure for destabilizing accusations of disinformation.

This report has been written as an expert vision by Michael Hameleers and Rens Vliegenthart and has been published in the WRR/KNAW bundle ‘COVID-19: Expertvisies op de gevolgen voor samenleving en beleid’ available here.