Unraveling disinformation: Notions and discourses from the Spanish population
Disinformation has become a core concept in communications research, related to media, technological and political phenomena that complexify its definition and diagnosis. Although its approach has been mainly quantitative, focus groups have also been used to understand the perception of the audience of this particular issue. This research is part of this second group of studies, and attempts to investigate the notions and discourses on disinformation in the case of Spain. For this purpose, seven discussion groups were conducted, with a structural sample constructed according to employment situation, ideology and age. The results show a perception of the communicative ecosystem structured in two chronological poles, which contrasts a past of reduced information supply – associated with traditional media – with a current informational environment where there is more media diversity, but also less trust in them. The groups point to the overabundance of information and associated disinformation with decontextualisation, low-quality journalism and the economic and political interests of different actors. Discourses outline a scenario of decline in journalism and the public sphere, which is perceived as polarised and emotional. Disinformation is therefore perceived as a multidimensional phenomenon that is associated with issues of major democratic transcendence rather than merely sending hoaxes through the Internet.
Disinformation, communicative ecosystem, focus groups, discourse analysis, media, social media
Desinformación, ecosistema comunicativo, grupos de discusión, análisis del discurso, medios de comunicación, redes sociales
La desinformación se ha convertido en un concepto central en las investigaciones en comunicación, relacionado con diversos fenómenos mediáticos, tecnológicos y políticos que complejizan su definición y diagnóstico. Si bien su abordaje ha sido eminentemente cuantitativo, los grupos de discusión han sido también empleados para conocer la percepción de la audiencia sobre este fenómeno. Esta investigación se sitúa en esta estela, para tratar de indagar en las nociones y discursos que existen sobre la desinformación en el caso español. Para ello, se realizan siete grupos de discusión, con una muestra estructural construida según la situación laboral, la ideología y la edad. Los resultados muestran una percepción del ecosistema comunicativo estructurada en dos polos cronológicos, que contrapone un pasado de menor oferta informativa, asociado con los medios de comunicación tradicionales, a un entorno informacional actual donde existe más diversidad mediática, pero también menos confianza en los medios. Los grupos señalan la sobreabundancia de información, y vinculan la desinformación con la descontextualización, el periodismo de baja calidad y los intereses económicos y políticos de diversos actores. Los discursos delinean un panorama de declive del periodismo y de la esfera pública, que se percibe como polarizada y emocional. La desinformación se percibe, por lo tanto, como un fenómeno multidimensional que se asocia a cuestiones de mayor trascendencia democrática que el envío de bulos a través de Internet.
Disinformation, communicative ecosystem, focus groups, discourse analysis, media, social media
Desinformación, ecosistema comunicativo, grupos de discusión, análisis del discurso, medios de comunicación, redes sociales
Introduction and state of the art
Disinformation has become a concept of growing interest, and its definition has been associated with the circulation of fake news, although some authors argue it is a symptom of a broader crisis that affects the credibility of political institutions and the media (Bennett & Livingston, 2018). The concept of fake news is complicated and its limits overlap other types of news content such as satire, polarised journalism and propaganda (Molina et al., 2019). Compared to those other terms (Salaverría et al., 2020), fake news is characterised by the author's willingness to lie. For example, propaganda and disinformation share the search for certain political objectives, but propaganda tries to achieve those objectives by giving partial messages that omit a specific perspective, and does not outright deceive. Tandoc et al. (2018: 148) believe the reader shares a responsibility in the conceptualisation of fake news, because "while news is constructed by journalists, it seems that fake news is co-constructed by the audience, for its fakeness depends a lot on whether the audience perceives the fake as real". This is why there has been a high demand for media education that minimises the political and social impact of these fake news pieces (Golob et al., 2021).
The use of lies in public debate is not a new problem, and certain studies note the first journalistic practices attempting to tackle this issue took place at the end of the 20th century in the United States (Amazeen, 2017). However, recent events have increased academic interest in this type of political strategy, especially since Brexit and the 2016 election campaign in the United States (Anderson, 2020). In Spain, there was an increased flow of disinformation during the Catalan independence referendum, associated with the use of bots on social networks (Stella et al., 2018). With the expansion of the Internet, the issue of disinformation becomes increasingly important to the public space. On the Internet, the media are configured to be seen as authority figures that provide information, and the Internet facilitates the generation of pages that, with the appearance of mass media, take advantage of their enormous visibility to send misleading messages with political and commercial objectives (Flew, 2019). Simultaneous to this, datafication facilitates the tracking of the circulation of content, and the analysis of the impact that content has, as well as its engagement (Gray et al., 2020).
In short, the audience finds new ways of producing and consuming content on the Internet, while their interaction and behaviour is recorded to measure the effectiveness of online disinformation strategies. The new possibilities provided by big data analysis have also been of interest to social scientists, who apply computational techniques to study different fields, including public behaviour on social networks (Hjorth & Adler-Nissen, 2019; Nelson & Taneja, 2018; Shin & Thorson, 2017). These studies generally explore issues such as the selection of the information that is consumed, the possibility of believing or rejecting fake news, and the contribution to the spread of fake news pieces by sending them to specific online communities. Thus, qualitative research, although less frequent, has offered results that complement quantitative research on the audience. Discussion groups have been used to study strategies that can help to identify fake news – understanding that this process is not automatic for the public (Mercenier et al., 2022) and that verification is based on inspecting headlines, images and the body of the text together (Photiou & Maniou, 2018).
Similar research has shown that the public adopts one of two essential types of behaviour when addressing the media ecosystem: the first is to verify information by searching for sources of authority (media and interpersonal) and the second is avoiding information flows on the Internet, either by ignoring certain sources or by deliberately seeking entertainment on the Internet (Wenzel, 2019). Humour is, in fact, an incentive to share falsehoods, even when users are aware of its nature (Madrid-Morales et al., 2021). Interestingly, public debate on the disinformation problem has triggered actions such as consuming and disseminating news with greater caution (Duffy et al., 2020). Other studies have explored the population's perception of this phenomenon. In their research with discussion groups, Nielsen and Graves (2017) found a general lack of trust in media and political institutions, such that for the public, fake news was included in other forms of low-quality information, such as tabloid journalism, advertisements and propaganda. The present study follows this line of work and its research objective includes two questions:
O1. Explore the Spanish population’s social perception of contemporary information environments and the social representations that exist around the phenomenon of disinformation.
RQ1. What perceptions do Spaniards have of informational environments? What is their perception of traditional and digital media?
RQ2. What notion(s) and discourses circulate in the Spanish population regarding the phenomenon of disinformation?
Materials and methods
This study adopts a qualitative methodology based on a group discussion technique, and its purpose is to analyse the social discourses systems that exist on disinformation. The design of the sample includes a variety of social groups, each representing different perspectives on information and disinformation systems. The sampling carried out was structural and sought to represent a discursive universe associated with social macrogroups (Ibáñez, 1979), such that the set of discourses collected had to therefore include all fundamental ideological arguments (De Lucas, 1995).
The perception of the informational environment and the experience with disinformation are influenced by three variables: position in the social structure, political ideology, and age. We used these variables to construct the structural sample. We subsequently justify their importance through the October 2019 macrobarometer from the Centre for Sociological Research (CIS) (study No. 3263) 1 , which allows us to observe the strong association that these variables exhibit with media consumption.
An individual’s position in the social structure condenses their economic and cultural capitals, conditions their media consumption, and shapes their perception of media messages (Hall, 1997). In the sample, position in the social structure has been operationalised based on occupation, as it presents a strong association with the preferred means of obtaining information about the 2019 electoral campaign (Figure 1).
While people with occupations that require higher education followed the campaign more intensely through the press and radio, people with jobs that did not require university studies preferred to inform themselves through television.
There is consensus in the literature that political ideology influences media consumption (Humanes, 2014). In fact, the best predictor of media consumption in Spain is party identification and ideology (Valera-Ordaz & Humanes, 2022). Following the study mentioned above, we can observe how vote intention and party sympathy have a clear association with the preferred television channel to follow electoral campaigns (Figure 2). Thus, people who vote for PP, Ciudadanos and VOX watch Antena 3 more frequently, while those who vote for PSOE and Unidas Podemos tend to choose La Sexta. The same occurs for the radio and the press.
Finally, age is configured as a fundamental variable influencing media consumption, and one that is likely to affect the perception of informational environments and the phenomenon of disinformation. While young people prefer to inform themselves through social networks and digital media, older adults prefer to use traditional media. Figure 3 shows how people aged between 18 and 34 followed the campaign on social networks, while the 65 and over population did so through television.
The purpose of the sample is to capture the dominant discourses as well as the extremes. That is why, in regard to the variable age, this sample includes young people as well as those over 65. In summary, three variables structure the sample: employment status and occupation, party sympathy, and age, given its significance in terms of media consumption and its predictable influence on the social perception of communicative environments (Figure 4).
In total, seven discussion groups were held in person on 29 and 30 June and 1 October 2021 at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Valencia. Recruitment was carried out by the company CR Godoy, which recruited participants with a questionnaire based on the sociodemographic profiles of the structural sample (Figure 4). In each group there were two moderators of the Mediaflows research group: one led group dynamics and the other ensured that the discussion included the themes contained in the guidelines. Six people participated in each group and there was parity between males and females in all of them. The duration of the group session ranged between 52 and 108 minutes, depending on each group dynamic.
Analysis and results
The starting point of the analysis is the narrative configurations, i.e., interpreting the structure of the texts around dimensions that organise the set of discourses and relating them to the social context and the objectives of the research study (Conde, 2009). This procedure manifests the main dimensions that underlie the discussions, to characterise the object of investigation and facilitate delimiting the semantic spaces (Conde, 2014). The semantic spaces comprise sets of expressions and associated themes that are linked to the axes of the narrative configurations. In addition, the validity of the analyses rests on the principle of saturation, such that the narrative configurations are accompanied by verbatim quotes that justify them. Below we present the structured results according to the research questions.
Perception of information environments
The narrative configuration that structures the perception of the communicative ecosystem defines three axes that comprise its social codification and historical context: a horizontal one of a chronological nature – comparing before and now – and two vertical axes, one depicting freedom of choice, and the other the credibility of information sources (Figure 5).
This map arranges the discourses, and highlights how the discussions about the media are structured around a chronological axis, contrasting a "before" in which there was only traditional media with a "now" that is characterised by a greater variety of information sources. The “before” is associated with a greater credibility of the media, but also with less freedom and ability to compare, while the “now” is associated with more freedom, but less trust.
The discussions point to the greater freedom of choice that consumers now have in the context of the "high choice media environments" (Prior, 2007) that have emerged after digitalisation: “the advantage (...) is the diversity (...), on television you can only watch what they broadcast (...), however on the Internet and social networks you can access all the information you want” (GD1). However, this greater freedom of choice contrasts with the less credibility attributed to the new media of “now”, and contrasts with the greater reliability granted to traditional media. A semantic space is therefore configured and it highlights the greater credibility of the information received through traditional means, associated with adjectives such as “more truthful” (GD4), “more reliable” (GD6) and “more professional” (GD3). “It is very difficult for the press, or television or even the radio, to publish fake news, (...) there may be bias and trends and such, but news is news, and if someone catches you giving fake news, (...) you are going to be hung out to dry” (GD5). However, the credibility of the traditional media is also questioned because of their lack of "objectivity" (GD5). The news issued by journalistic media is perceived to be "distorted to the point that it seems somewhat ridiculous, invented" (GD1). This lack of "neutrality" (GD6), emphasised by all groups, is related to the fact that "the media (...) are politicised" (GD2), and, as a result, they offer biased accounts of reality, to the point of skewing the news and spreading Manichaean speeches, reflecting the thinking "that some people are evil and others are good" (GD5).
Journalists are also perceived to be opinion formers, not neutral informers of reality: "they think their job has a paternalistic nature, that is, 'poor people, I have to teach them' and (...) they go on to give 10% information and 90% opinion" (GD5). A role that the Spanish journalists themselves recognise (Roses-Campos & Humanes, 2019). This is a result of the interpretive and opinion-focused tradition of the Spanish press, described in some discussions as a form of sectarianism: "they are people who…are with me or against me" (GD5).
The politicisation of Spanish journalism is supported by the literature and it is an essential characteristic of the polarised pluralism media system (Hallin & Mancini, 2004; Humanes, 2014). Sampedro and Seoane (2008) describe it as a system of "antagonistic bipolarisation”, and note how the Spanish media are integrated into blocks, each associated with one of the two ideological spheres.
Regarding this general perception of journalism as a social force that divides and incites sectarianism – "they want to shape opinion, transmit ideology, so that a certain ideological option is hated" (GD5) – the phenomenon of a hostile media is especially mentioned by right-wing groups (Vallone et al., 1985): "you always have to be politically correct, and anything that goes against this trend, (...) is called fascist" (GD6), "this Évole, wow, I mean, for God's sake! (...) this is what we call freedom? They can shout but I can’t talk?" (GD4).
There is a perception that the media are loudspeakers of political correctness and allies of the ideological and cultural battles of the left, and offer media coverage favourable to their causes, such as the rights of the LGBTI collective, feminism, or sex-based violence: "Every single day there’s a different piece of news, today it’s the trans, off we go then! News (...) about everything, even feminism" (GD6).
In addition, the space made up by the "before", referring to the mass communication model, is related to less freedom of choice, perceived as a diminished ability to compare information, and the "now" is perceived to have a wide range of digital media options, which allows for compensation: "(...) before (...) we only had access to the information that the newspaper showed us (...) so we believed it. Now we have more ways to compare this news" (GD6). However, the diversity of media that emerges with the digitisation of the "now", also results in a greater circulation of false news throughout the public space and greater uncertainty about the reliability of the information, since it is more difficult to identify the sources that issue it and judge its credibility, especially pieces that are sent through social networks, given that “the sender is usually anonymous" (GD5) and on those networks "everyone has a voice" (GD1) and "everyone is a journalist and they tell lies" (GD4). Thus, there is a general perception that "Facebook is the king of fake news" (GD5), "and that there is also a lot of fake news on Instagram stories" (GD2).
Despite the lower trust in social networks, an exception in the older age groups is worth noting here: if the messages come from close friends and family, then they are indeed trustworthy. In this sense, the results expand on what was found in other studies: citizens not only read the news more frequently if it comes from friends and family (Masip et al., 2019; Hermida et al., 2012; Herrero-Diz et al. 2020), but they also give it more credibility: "The only WhatsApp messages I believe are those that are sent by the family, personal messages, those ones are OK” (GD4). This finding underlines the importance of friends and family as sources of trust, and their role as filters of the messages that are sent through social networks in a context of information overload. A role that evokes, with significant nuances, the role played by social reference groups and opinion leaders as moulders and moderators of the effects of the media, according to the classic "two-step flow of communication" model (Lazarsfeld et al., 1944) and its evolution in the "multiple-step flow of communication" model (Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1955).
These models gave the media the role of necessary intermediaries, from which opinion leaders filtered the relevant content for their respective environments. Instead, the current context, characterised by a dispersion of media and sources, makes up a different scenario (Bennett & Iyengar, 2008), where the information that circulates via social networks may have an origin outside the media, and where there are more opportunities to misrepresent original content along the way (Bimber & Gil-de-Zúñiga, 2020). In such a context, trust between users is important in the dissemination of disinformation outside journalistic mediation and in spaces where the media no longer has a central position.
In addition, not all social networks are equally trusted: in younger- and middle-aged groups, the degree of credibility of the news received depends on the social network it comes from. The least credible is WhatsApp (GD2, GD5, GD1), to the point that young people come to define fake news as "the message Aunt Loli sends your mother" (GD1) on WhatsApp. The most credible is Twitter. Twitter is used by younger-aged groups to corroborate the veracity of news, probably because both journalists and politicians are especially active on it (Newman & Levy, 2014; Engesser & Humpretch, 2015), and because it is a network that has an open nature, where it is easier to verify information and find sources that provide data in this regard. This, together with the greater distrust young people have towards traditional media, makes Twitter a platform that enjoys credibility among young people.
“There is news on television that is very distorted to the point that it seems somewhat ridiculous and made up. M: I was amazed about the UFMs 3 (…) I went to Twitter, just to see and say: 'Okay, where did this come from?' And it was like: your statistics are a percentage of the percentage" (GD1). On the other hand, distrust of social networks is accentuated in older groups, who feel vulnerable to the hoaxes that circulate on them, also as a result of having fewer digital skills, because "we already have problems with technology" (GD4), and "it turns out that mobiles and computers, which were going to help us (...) actually give us problems (...) I have to depend on my daughters to teach me" (GD4), "do I understand the Internet? No, I don’t" (GD3).
This is why older groups give more credibility to the information received through traditional media: and age is the backdrop to most discussions about (dis)information, in addition to the "before" and "now” axis: "Facebook to inform you? (...) A lot of fake news, (...) I don't pay any attention to it" (GD4); "(...) the news that is published on Facebook, maybe it is a copy of what I have been told, so I don't really see it as serious (...) H: No, I don't see it as reliable" (GD3).
Also, the supposed freedom of choice associated with "now" and the diversity of media is also questioned. Faced with the politicisation of traditional media, discourses, especially those coming from young and middle-aged people, are that "if they try to manipulate me, I jump on the Internet and research the data I want to find" (GD5). This alleged freedom of consumption therefore coexists, at least in groups with greater cultural capital, with the perception that algorithmic communication on the Internet directs and structures the search and consumption of information, based on browsing history and the data profiles associated with each user: a filter bubble, as described by Pariser in 2011. "But then you go to the Internet to contrast, what they allow you to see because you are looking up information, and, of course, a list always appears (…) its manipulation because I want to look for something else, but it takes me to where they want me to go, they kind of control what you browse and they are always bombarding you with information about the last thing you searched for" (GD6).
In fact, the hyper-fragmentation of media consumption and the possibility of hyper-segmenting advertising messages translates into business models based on extracting and trading user data (Flew, 2019). Adult and youth groups therefore perceive the "now" as a more plural informational environment, but one that is not problem-free. "If they show you an image, or news piece, of something that doesn't interest you, you can mark it as 'not interested', and you won’t receive anything else about that topic. So as it is a controversial topic, and you already have a very clear opinion of it, you won’t receive any contradictory information about it and have no chance of changing your mind" (GD2).
The dimensions of disinformation
Discussions on "disinformation" create a semantic space that highlights the idea of manipulation, and is associated with terms such as "herd", "sheep", etc.: "depending on the channel, (...) they try to herd us like sheep, so they tell us something has happened, even if it is false" (GD2). The discussions mention the idea that "all of us are often part of the herd and we are sheep" (GD1), "manipulated sheep" (GD6), "and we know that everything in this life is manipulated, by the interests of those who are in charge" (GD4).
This rhetoric of suspicion – "you turn on a channel and they only show you the news they want you to watch" (GD5) – reflects the visions of the media as all-powerful agents, and the "hypodermic needle" as a metaphor for its ability to influence the audience by eliminating any possible resistance.
Likewise, the groups reveal various notions of disinformation that should be qualified. First, the groups mention how an overabundance of information makes it impossible to verify its veracity: "Before, you would have four news sources and that's it, but now the amount the Internet has makes it impossible" (GD6). That is to say, despite the fact that the greater media available makes contrasting possible, the saturation of information and the speed with which it is produced, prevent messages from being contrasted, because "it goes so fast that you don’t have time" (GD6), which concurs with the idea of disinformation by saturation: "I think that behind the scenes there is the idea that instead of generating more information, an excess of information misinforms" (GD5).
Second, a notion of disinformation as a weapon at the service of political and affective polarisation emerges, used to generate hostile emotions towards those who have other political beliefs. The discussions emphasise that "behind the fake news there is always an interest in discrediting something or someone" (GD5) and that "perhaps I say I am on the right, so I criticise those on the left, and send you that saying ‘look at what they are doing’. And at the end you say, ‘Oh my goodness! They are terrible!’ And maybe it's not like that" (GD6).
In other words, the current communication environments – especially social networks – are linked to the erosion of democracy, and to the promotion of hatred towards those who hold other political opinions, to the point that the need for regulation is suggested: "Using fake news to generate antipathy towards something should be considered a crime" (GD5).
"We might even agree, but if I am only getting news that shocks me, because I (...) am on the left, but I receive shocking news about the right and (...) it makes me think they are animals, but maybe that piece wasn't true (...) and I end up wanting to spit in the face of anyone who is right-wing (...) I think they're radicalising us" (GD1).
In line with this notion of disinformation, the groups emphasise that people selectively chose their media, that their media consumption is politically oriented and they avoid encountering otherness: "the problem is that you have so many sources of information, so what happens? ‘That’s too right-wing, I’m going to block it (...)’ and you are left only with things that interest you" (GD5).
This results in references to filter bubbles (Pariser, 2011), the personalisation of media consumption and the fragmentation of public space into ideological niches (Sunstein, 2009), referring to a semantic space that associates disinformation with "hate" (GD2, GD5, GD7), "tension" (GD4, GD2), "radicalisation" (GD7) and "division" (GD1).
Along with these notions of disinformation, the idea emerges that disinformation is decontextualised information, which has not passed the meaning-building filter provided by journalism – although this is not explicitly articulated – either because the sender deliberately spreads decontextualised messages, or because the receiver does not read the message well: "It's a news piece that is accompanied by an image sent on WhatsApp... and then the image had nothing to do with it" (GD2); "They tell the news story in the headline (...) 'A woman was murdered.' And when you go to read it well, it happened in Mexico (...) and then people say, ‘this bloody chauvinist country’” (GD5).
Finally, there is a notion of disinformation being purely commercial information, and individuals see in the sensationalism encroaching on the media (GD5) – trash TV and advertising in journalistic discourse: "I am watching the news on television and suddenly they change the camera shot and start an advert, the very same presenter who was speaking to you” (GD5) – one of the reasons the media is losing credibility and is a breeding ground for the circulation of disinformation in the public space.
Discussion and conclusions
Although disinformation is not a contemporary phenomenon (Amazeen, 2017), this research study highlights the concept that technological advances have encouraged new ways of producing and consuming messages. In this new context, the role of traditional media is diluted by other emerging media, through which content of interest for public debate circulates (Flew, 2019). This has consequences on the quality of the information and on the use of journalistic formats for non-informative purposes. This change in the media system is central to understanding discourses on disinformation, as this research study shows that age is the variable that most significantly structures the Spanish perception of the communicative ecosystems. Regardless of their ideology and occupation, older people trust traditional media more than younger people who give more credibility to social networks. This helps explain the generational differences in behaviour on social networks, i.e. younger people’s willingness to share false information (Duffy et al., 2020). We also found that older people trusted second-generation social networks (such as WhatsApp or Telegram) more, not so much the tool, but the social environment in which they operate (the messages sent are from family and friends). This leads to a contradictory scenario where older people trust the media, but are more likely to be affected by disinformation that comes from close sources, which in turn, are the platforms that more often spread false information pretending to be from real journalistic media. Another finding is that disinformation is associated with other concepts such as propaganda, which reveals the significance of the political dimension of these contents (Tandoc et al., 2018), i.e., individuals attribute political interests to false news, and see them as messages that are trying to convince them of certain political positions. Given this, journalism does not seem to be seen as a source of moral authority that channels quality information. The association of fake news with content generated by political interests or by the media for propaganda purposes is an issue addressed in other studies (Nielsen & Graves, 2017). For this reason, although the Spanish media system is characterised by its politicisation both in the processes of broadcasting and receiving of content (Humanes, 2014), the similarity of these perceptions with those of other countries shows that this phenomenon is not exclusively Spanish. This opens the door to comparative research that can explore global trends on this issue.
Disinformation, therefore, is a concept that is perceived in a multidimensional manner. Its description is associated with phenomena that are part of a broader media and institutional crisis: the circulation of biased or false information in the public space, journalistic content as a tool for political and affective polarisation, and information saturation. The need to understand fake news and disinformation as not isolated social facts (Bennett & Livingston, 2018), but as symptoms of broader problems related to the communicative ecosystem, such as disintermediation (Masip et al., 2019), fragmentation of media consumption (Bennett & Iyengar, 2008), and media polarisation is apparent. (1)