Misinformation reflects cultural differences

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The spread of misinformation online and via social media has great potential for social upheaval. Which ‘fake news’ is preferred differs from country to country. A study from Italy shows that small cultural differences have a major influence on the dissemination of false information on certain topics.

Researchers are now well aware of how misinformation spreads on the internet and the role played by factors such as echo chambers, in which like-minded people reinforce each other’s beliefs. Recommendation algorithms in social media are also suspected of fueling the spread of false news.

A research group led by Fabiana Zollo from the University of Ca’ Foscari in Venice wants to find strategies to counteract the spread of misinformation in Europe with their study published in the journal “PLOS ONE.”

Credible or not?
The researchers compared 874 news channels in Germany, France, the UK, and Italy that provided information on the social media platform ‘X’ (formerly Twitter) from 2019 to 2021. They wanted to find out how topics of pan-European importance were received in these four countries and what role more or less trustworthy sources of information played in this.

Based on data from NewsGuard, a tool that evaluates the reliability of news based on journalistic criteria, they divided the analyzed media into reliable and questionable sources, looked at which topics were covered more extensively by both the one and the other media channels, and led to online debates on ‘X’ (formerly Twitter). Three topics emerged prominently in all four countries: Brexit (2019), the coronavirus pandemic (2020), and COVID-19 vaccines (2021).

Brexit, coronavirus & co.
The researchers found that reliable news sources on these topics received significantly more attention in all four countries analyzed. However, it also emerged that misinformation was read with varying frequency depending on the topic and country. Italy, for example, had the highest percentage of people consuming dubious information on Brexit but the fewest forum posts on false news about the coronavirus.

The proportion of questionable posts on Brexit and CoV vaccines was significantly higher in Italy, France, and Germany than in the coronavirus debate. In the UK, however, the researchers could not identify these differences, with one exception: there were slightly more questionable posts in discussions about the coronavirus.

Questionable news clusters
It is also striking that there is a clearly recognizable group of questionable news providers in France, Germany, and Italy, according to the research team. This indicates that groups of people in these three countries also mainly or exclusively consume dubious news.

For example, the researchers found one cluster for each topic analyzed (Brexit, coronavirus, COVID-19 vaccines, note) in Germany and Italy. They even found two clusters in France that conveyed unreliable content during the Brexit debate in 2019.

Reliable sources preferred
However, the authors conclude that most participants in online discussions obtain their information mainly or exclusively from reliable news channels. However, in each of the four countries analyzed, a small but notable proportion of people in each debate exclusively used questionable sources to support their points of view. They clearly play a significant role in the spread of misinformation.

When and why users of reliable and dubious sources mix, need to be investigated, considering the topics people discuss in online forums and the country where these debates occur. This is also important from a socio-political perspective to understand divisive narratives’ emergence and develop customized strategies against the spread of misinformation. This is because, according to the research team, small cultural differences apparently significantly influence the spread of misinformation on certain topics, depending on the topic and country.

  • source: orf.at/picture:
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