This policy paper focuses on the nexus between trust and mis- and disinformation in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. First, we use the image of a spiral to illustrate selected predictors of distrust at the macro-level of societal institutions (particularly democratic institutions and the media), the meso-level of intergroup relations, and the micro-level of individuals’ generalized distrust towards power, what might be referred to as the conspiracy mentality.
At each level, this paper reviews evidence for
the state of (mis-) trust before the pandemic
and how declining levels of trust increase vulnerability to mis- and disinformation and/or conspiracy narratives, and show how “polluted information”2 can reinforce distrust in the sense of a downward spiral. Building on this framework, the paper then moves on to discuss how COVID-19 has impacted the interplay between trust and polluted information across the three levels
and demonstrates how increased distrust has endangered successful pandemic-control and stability. Finally, the paper deduces starting points to prevent the downward spiral of disinformation and foster societal resilience at all three levels.3
To promote societal resilience to mis- and disinformation, six key-challenges need to be addressed:
1. Social media architecture and business models constitute a venue of unprecedented power
for spreading conspiracy narratives, mis-, and disinformation: publishing and amplifying content is easy, and users may consume and share social media posts without careful analyzing the information they encounter.
2. Polarization, inequality, and misbehavior by political actors and media representatives are associated with declining trust in democratic institutions and the media around the world. Such developments can increase citizens’ likelihood to turn towards alternative news sources and become more vulnerable to mis- and disinformation and conspiracy narratives.
3. Ongoing intergroup conflicts and discrimination can lead to intergroup distrust over time, increasing citizens’ susceptibility to ‘polluted’ information. As a result, mis-or disinformation and conspiracy stories can contribute to violence and radicalization processes.
4. Basic human cognition and need for a coherent understanding of socio-political developments, subjective certainty, and a positive image of oneself and ones ingroup make people susceptible to conspiracy stories. A large share of citizens is likely to believe in conspiracy stories from time to time, which can increase tolerance for and even the embracing of violent behavior.
5. Mis- and disinformation and particularly conspiracy stories often attribute blame to democratic institutions and outgroups for existing problems in a society, fueling even more distrust among the public, and thus contributing to a downward spiral of distrust and deception.
6. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced existing distrust and led to a global flood of mis- and disinformation and conspiracy stories that are likely to accelerate the downward spiral of distrust.