The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What the misinformation scare reveals about faith in democracy

A sign urging people to use their vote to protect democracy is seen outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2022. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
4 min

Who’s afraid of misinformation? That’s not a rhetorical question. The purported danger from misleading online news has been one of the biggest stories in the English-speaking world since 2016. A veritable industry of academic institutions and think-tank organs — with government encouragement — has sprung up in response. Meanwhile, some researchers have started to challenge the political establishment’s misinformation focus, and the debate about its significance is polarizing along partisan lines.

But put partisanship to one side for the moment. Something else helps distinguish misinformation hawks from misinformation doves, according to a recent paper published in New Media & Society, a top communications journal. In short: The people who perceive the greatest social threat from misinformation tend to be those who have the gravest doubts about ordinary people’s common sense.

That stands to reason: If you are confident in the general public’s ability to sniff out falsehoods online, then you won’t be so concerned about the falsehoods’ proliferation. Misinformation is dangerous in proportion to the likelihood that it will be influential and persuasive.

Intuitive as it might be, the authors of the study — Sacha Altay of the University of Oxford and Alberto Acerbi of Brunel University — set out to demonstrate this relationship empirically. They asked respondents (about 600, split between United States and Britain) a series of questions to gauge their level of concern about misinformation, including whether it is a “problem for democracy.”

Follow Jason Willick's opinionsFollow

Respondents also rated their own ability to identify misinformation — as well as the ability of “people in general” to do so. Unsurprisingly, most people have a higher opinion of their own informational savviness than that of others: “77% of participants believed that people in general were more vulnerable to misinformation than themselves, and only 18% believed that they were more vulnerable to misinformation than people in general,” the authors write. But the greater the gap (known as the “third-person effect”), the more a respondent was likely to worry about misinformation’s impact on society, on average.

The authors also measured a handful of other beliefs that might correlate with concern about misinformation, including “attitudes toward new technologies.” But they concluded that the “strongest, and most reliable, predictor of perceived danger of misinformation was the perception that others are more vulnerable to misinformation than the self.” Or in the more evocative words of the paper’s title: “People believe misinformation is a threat because they assume others are gullible.”

If the paper’s conclusions are correct, what are the implications for democracy? One interpretation might be that the misinformation scare is fundamentally antidemocratic. After all, if voters lack the ability to distinguish truth from falsity, as misinformation theory suggests, then they can easily fall under the sway of hucksters and demagogues. Surely that implies that the popular will ought to carry less weight in governing decisions. That view aligns with the current partisan debates: Conservatives have accused liberals of hyping the specter of misinformation to censor ordinary people and impose bureaucratic rule.

But there’s a natural rejoinder from the misinformation hawks: That democracy can’t work properly if citizens are misinformed, and genuine public debate and reasoning are being drowned in a sea of falsehoods. In this view, crackdowns on misinformation don’t reflect a lack of faith in democracy, but a desire to perfect it — to ascertain the true public will, untainted by social media misdirection.

The misinformation scare of the past seven years, then, is driven by a pessimistic view of ordinary people’s democratic faculties — and an optimistic view of how this might be transformed by elite intervention in public discourse.

I doubt human nature is so malleable. Society is full of clashing interests and opinions from which a clear “will of the people” can’t always be discerned, and self-governing institutions shouldn’t expect perfection from their participants. The modern campaign against misinformation is therefore based on a faulty premise, and has often done more harm than good — for example, by polarizing the debate over the origins of the coronavirus.

Anti-misinformation activists and institutions are some of the loudest advocates of “democracy” in the West. Yet their project is driven in part by the perception that ordinary people lack judgment. The concept of misinformation makes both of these ideological convictions possible, because it offers a rationalization for democratic outcomes (like the election of Donald Trump) that could be seen as discrediting: Voters might have made an unconscionable choice, but they were misled.

The elite campaign against misinformation, characterized by a mistrust of the public and a tendency toward censorship, has an air of authoritarianism about it. But it’s also a way to bridge the gap between democratic ideology in the abstract and democracy’s imperfections in reality. The alternative might be a collapse of elite confidence in democracy altogether.