The spread of misinformation and disinformation is a growing concern that has far-reaching consequences. Not only does it polarize the public and undermine health-protective behaviors, but it also erodes trust in science. However, there is a deeper and more subversive damage caused by misinformation and disinformation that is often overlooked – it undermines democracy itself.
In a recent paper published in Current Opinion in Psychology, two important aspects of democracy that are eroded by disinformation are highlighted. The first aspect is the integrity of elections. For example, in the United States, a significant number of Republicans question the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election due to disinformation spread by Donald Trump. This undermines confidence in the peaceful transfer of power that is essential for democracy to function effectively.
The second aspect is the reliance on reliable information for making informed policy decisions. Democracy is based on the idea that collective decision-making can lead to better outcomes than autocracy. However, this idea is undermined when people are consistently exposed to false or misleading information. Examples of this include the disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry to deny climate change and the spread of misinformation about COVID-19, which has led to skepticism about lockdowns and vaccines.
It is concerning to see that some of the same political operatives involved in denying climate change have also promoted COVID disinformation. This suggests a common denominator – suspicion of government solutions and a fear of policies that are perceived as infringing on personal liberties. These disinformation campaigns often involve personal attacks on individuals to compromise their integrity and credibility.
Attacks on scientists and researchers who seek to uphold evidence-based integrity have become a new frontier in the battle against misinformation. Republican politicians, particularly those who have endorsed baseless claims about the 2020 election, have been at the forefront of these attacks. This has had a chilling effect on research into misinformation.
Efforts are being made to combat misinformation and disinformation through legislative measures and research. The European Union, for example, has introduced the Digital Services Act and Code of Practice to make democracies more resilient against misinformation. Research has also shown promising results in boosting the public’s resistance to misinformation through methods like inoculation, which educates individuals about the techniques used to mislead them.
However, it remains to be seen whether these initiatives and research findings will be effectively utilized, particularly in countries like the US where research into misinformation is seen as a threat by some politicians. It is crucial that we address the damage caused by misinformation and disinformation to protect the integrity of democracy.