What makes people particularly susceptible to disinformation and how can we prevent falling for it? These questions are the focus of the new research project on innovative communication strategies for intervention and prevention in disinformation campaigns (IKIP), coordinated by Prof. Dr. Friederike Herrmann, who is a Professor of Journalism and Communication Studies at the KU. The project is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.
The scientific partners in the three-year research project include researchers from the Media School Hamburg, the Police Academy of Lower Saxony, Frankfurt's Goethe University and the Frankfurt University of Applied Science. In addition to communication science, the researchers are active in the fields of psychology and media and social psychology.
It is true that the targeted spreading of disinformation runs through human history. However, increasing digitalization not only contributes to the fact that serious news is available anytime and anywhere, but also that misinformation can spread at a rapid pace. "Disinformation campaigns, however, require more than just technical capability to spread. They only resonate if their content and presentation methods are linked to the needs and feelings of the audience", says Professor Herrmann. Such a context would be provided, e.g. by narratives regarding racism and anti-Semitism, for example: These narratives take up diffuse fears and justify them by naming apparent causes and alleged culprits for them. "Such statements can provide relief to recipients – no matter how absurd they are when looked at from a down-to-earth perspective. The narratives serve affective needs, but this connection remains mostly unconscious. Especially in crisis situations, people tend to prefer simple solutions", says Herrmann.
The Corona pandemic, she said, was a good example of peoples’ tendency to want clear causes and culprits. But the information provided had not been clear and had partly been contradictory because knowledge about the pandemic had only developed over time. This ambiguity is difficult to bear for some people, especially in crisis situations, and causes anxiety. This, in turn, was exploited by the initiators of disinformation campaigns to steer public discourse into a certain direction.
The communication scientist explains: "We take a step back and look at the point in time before the actual disinformation campaigns are launched and deal with their breeding ground. The thesis behind this is that certain narratives prepare the ground for disinformation and polarization to catch with people in the first place, making them hard to be reached for getting the facts right."
Narratives as the driving force behind disinformation campaigns on issues such as migration have already been the subject of in-depth academic discussion, but mostly in relation to explicitly visible content. The subtle effect of latent narratives, which "are to a certain extent hidden between the lines and only unfold through the reaction of the media users to them", has so far remained unconsidered. People were more likely to believe information that they were already familiar with, for example, because it had been repeated frequently – a typical feature of campaigns. Against this background, serious information has a hard time getting through because it differentiates and does not present simple solutions. "This means they cannot connect in the same way to certain basic patterns of thinking and feeling and cannot develop comparable power", Professor Herrmann explains.
Contrary to these findings, previous approaches to countering the spread of disinformation have mostly operated at the cognitive level. But it is difficult to counter emotions with rational arguments. Therefore, the IKIP project takes a broader approach: "We need to become aware of the functions of the narratives and frames contained in disinformation and understand how they work in order to demystify them." Journalists, like all people, are also susceptible to easy solutions in certain situations. For this reason, in addition to multipliers in universities and schools, media professionals are also explicitly part of the target group for special training courses designed to help resist easy answers and polarization. In cooperation with the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and the Media Academy of television broadcasters ARD and ZDF, the researchers will also develop concepts to provide journalists with guidance on how to counter disinformation campaigns in social media, user comments or reporting.
The development of the prevention and intervention measures is based on questionnaire and interview studies conducted by IKIP researchers on the psychological factors that make people prone to fall for disinformation. They will be linked to the qualitative and quantitative analysis of fear narratives.
So far, as Professor Herrmann describes, there has been relatively little research into which individuals are particularly susceptible to disinformation campaigns; the connection between susceptibility to certain narratives based on specific psychological dispositions has not yet been the focus of academic investigation. A key factor here is the concept of ambiguity tolerance. It describes the ability to tolerate contradictions, ambiguity, and uncertainty. Particularly in crisis situations, Herrmann said, some people tend to think in terms of easy answers and template-like black-and-white thinking that is fueled by fear narratives and conspiracy theories. People with low tolerance for ambiguity would often perceive unexpected situations that are difficult to control as a threat. From the desire for unambiguity it is only a short way to simple answers, such as those provided by conspiracy narratives and disinformation campaigns. Simple answers represent an attempt to prevent ambiguity from being felt in the first place and are thus a driving force for radical attitudes as well as a threat to democracy. "In this case, psychological relief comes at the price of a distorted perception of reality and associated limitations on options for action."
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