New study in cooperation with Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom and AMO
The people who spread disinformation, hoaxes and conspiracy theories feel strong need to “be heard”. Repeated estimates state that as much as 10% of members of general public regularly share information that they consider to be “censored by large media”, while at the same time, they believe at least several conspiracy theories. Such citizens are seldom professionals in disinformation who does it for political or financial gains.
In our qualitative research, we previously identified several reasons for such behaviour. One of them is the need to feel appreciated by the society and to feel as its valued member, to feel “heard”. From our qualitative research, we estimate that approximately half of thus identified “spreaders” consider this to be the most important motive for their actions.
The non-governmental organisation STEM and the Association For International Affairs thus organised two experiments addressing this group of misinformation “spreaders”. First experiment concerned the European policy concerning climate change, the other concerned EU migration policy. In total, 130 people completed the screening and matched our criteria. 52 of those finished one of the two experiments either in the experimental group or in the control group.
These experiments show that even when the “spreaders” do get a chance to state their opinion publicly, their willingness to do so is relatively small. Even with controversial topics, the chance to present their opinion to politicians or a financial incentive don’t present a motivation strong enough to make them voice their suggestion. We can thus expect that in order to get this group to participate, it needs more than an open, honest invitation.
People who do participate in the discussion are generally more suspicious, more fearful and more sceptical. Such project can thus truly address even those who are, in certain respects, of extreme opinions and frightened. We did not confirm the suspicion that only those who are better informed or more open to other opinions take part in such discussion, while those on the periphery tend to ignore it. Also, we saw that it is possible to address a group of less-educated, less affluent citizens.
This group is not solution-oriented and has no idea about the possible solutions. It turns out that the topics of European migration and climate politics are so complex that this part of the public does not think in terms of solutions and has no idea, no matter how vague, about the possible solutions. On one hand, this shows that it is difficult to invite them to take part in the debate. On the other hand, it reveals a great empty space for potential work, because the possible solutions are not often discussed in political debates. Media, too, is usually problem-oriented, not solution-oriented.
Our hypothesis was that the participation itself could be a motive for accepting information that we normally filter out. The reason is that solution-oriented thinking, as opposed to concentrating on defending one’s own critical stance, limits the psychological barriers against information that is against one’s own opinion.
The experiment, however, did not yield sufficient data to confirm the hypothesis that participation leads to better absorption of facts. The results were inconclusive concerning migration: the reason might be that in this area, general knowledge of basic facts is relatively good and the driving force behind the refusal of various solutions is fear of the future and potential future threats. These “only expected” things are very hard to affect with proves or reasoning.
In the discussion about climate, poor awareness of elementary facts is widespread and in the exit poll, the experimental group turned out to be much more informed than the control group. Unfortunately, we cannot prove firmly the causality here as we did not measure the difference between knowledge before and after the experiment.
Besides, the participants did not state that they used the information “cheat sheets” we supplied, so we cannot directly trace their new knowledge to supplied information and estimate how open to new information the participants were.
Participation had no correlation with attitude. One cannot expect that such a short experiment could yield a large shift in attitudes. However, we were surprised by the diligence and permanence of opinion, namely when speaking about climate politics, as it is still rather new to the Czech public and the views tend to evolve.
From the tools of digital participation that we tested, we can recommend Your Priorities (YRPRI.org). For the purpose of this experiment, we translated it into Czech language and made available to any Czech users for free. It is very well suited and sufficiently varied for this type of work and also free to use. Given the limited activity of participants, it is worth to consider the Pol.is, too. This tool is simpler, but it does not have the option to set the environment according to a particular situation. Even such a simple tool like YRPRI poses a certain technological barrier, for example in that it does not permit better automation through e-mails.
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