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New Research on Disinformation Shows That Identity Wars Play a Key Role in Spreading Disinformation on Social Media

New Research on Disinformation Shows That Identity Wars Play a Key Role in Spreading Disinformation on Social Media

T.J. Anderson

Disinformation on social media is more than facts versus falsehoods or fake news. A new study by Hanken School of Economics and Linneaus University shows that spreading disinformation is an engagement program that encourages consumers to take sides in a culture war.

Published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, the study shows how disinformation circulates in social media through identity grudges. “Fact-checking is an important tool, but it can backfire. The reason is that people deeply vested in culture wars are likely to adopt their side’s identity. After all, fellow allies are more credible than perceived opponents. Hence, participants can use any arguments that support their pre-existing views, including truths, half-truths, and opinions, as long as it helps them win culture wars,” Carlos Diaz Ruiz, assistant professor in marketing at Hanken, explains.

“Fact-checking can help counter disinformation but just in the first ‘seeding phase’ when malicious actors strategically insert deceptions, like fake news. However, in the ‘echoing phase,’ participants co-create a confrontational fantasy that disseminates disinformation argumentatively.” 

Conspiracy Theories About a Flat Earth

Assistant Professor Carlos Diaz Ruiz (Hanken) and Senior Lecturer Tomas Nilsson (Linnaeus) studied disinformation in the context of the flat Earth echo chamber on YouTube, a controversial group arguing that the Earth is not spherical but flat.

“Whereas their arguments are often dismissed as ignorant, flat earthers talk in a way that persuades growing population segments. We find that they appeal to pre-existing debates that their audience already discuss, for example, whether God exists or not,” Diaz Ruiz says.

By analyzing their rhetorical strategies, the study shows how flat earthers animate and stoke identity-based grievances. 

“As grudges intensify, back-and-forth argumentation becomes a form of ‘knowing’ in the world. The argument becomes impervious to fact-checking because it is not about facts but grievances and group identification,” Diaz Ruiz says.

Counterstrategies for Policymakers

The study proposes a set of counterstrategies for policymakers. While it´s essential to maintain initiatives for identifying disinformation actors, flagging content, and fact-checking, also other counterstrategies are needed.

“For instance, the policymakers should identify the insider logic that the echo chamber on social media uses so that arguments are persuasive. For instance, if the group mistrusts authority figures, then a government-employed scientist will be a less effective spokesperson than one that shares cultural values. Further, policymakers should diminish the financial incentives for social media platforms to profit from disinformation,” Diaz Ruiz states.

About the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 

Journal of Public Policy & Marketing (JPP&M) is a forum for understanding the nexus of marketing and public policy, with each issue featuring a wide-range of topics including, but not limited to, ecology, ethics and social responsibility, nutrition and health, regulation and deregulation, security and privacy.

About the American Marketing Association (AMA) 

As the largest chapter-based marketing association in the world, the AMA is trusted by marketing and sales professionals to help them discover what is coming next in the industry. The AMA has a community of local chapters in more than 70 cities and 350 college campuses throughout North America. The AMA is home to award-winning content, PCM® professional certification, premiere academic journals, and industry-leading training events and conferences.

T.J. Anderson is Manager, Academic Content, American Marketing Association.