Smaller untruths can be more effective than blatant lies in COVID-19 disinformation

Published on February 10, 2022 – COVID-19 disinformation is most credible and hardest to correct when there is a stronger link with factual truths. This was the main result of a recently published experimental study held under 1490 German participants. These findings suggest that disinformation may be more dangerous when untruths are subtle instead of blatant. 

Disinformation – defined in this study as deliberately false information – comes in many shapes and forms. Though examples such as ‘COVID-19 is a biological weapon intended to dominate the world population’ are perhaps most familiar, disinformation in practice often concerns reports that have a stronger relationship with reality and the facts. In a recent study, Michael Hameleers, Edda Humprecht, Judith Möller, and Jula Lühring found that the extent to which the report deviates from factual truths is important for both the disinformation’s credibility and its correction.

More specifically, disinformation connecting COVID-19 to immigration or contamination via athletes is rated as more credible when only some statements are incorrect as compared to when the entire story is based on falsities. In addition, fact-checkers are more effective in refuting falsehoods of completely fabricated than partially false narratives.

The most important take-away point of this study is that researchers, fact-checkers and (news)platforms should not only devote their attention to extremer cases of disinformation, but should also teach the public on how to detect more subtle untruths that can be used strategically to deceive citizens.

This research has been published in the journal Information, Communication & Society and can be found here.