Synthesis produced by the Fondation Descartes of the following research paper:
Ognyanova, K., Lazer, D., Robertson, R. E., & Wilson, C. (2020). Misinformation in action: Fake news exposure is linked to lower trust in media, higher trust in government when your side is in power. Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review.
The authors of this article hypothesize that the dissemination of fake news could undermine the trust that citizens place in their political institutions and in the mainstream media. To test this hypothesis, the researchers asked individuals living in the United States to answer two questionnaires in a one-month interval and to agree to the installation of software meant to monitor their online behavior during the month in question (November 2018). Of the 3,000 participants who answered the questionnaire, only 227 agreed to have the monitoring software installed.
The aim of the two consecutive questionnaires was to measure changes in the trust that respondents place in political institutions and the mainstream media. The monitoring of respondents' online behavior was used to assess their respective exposure to the fake news currently circulating on the Internet.
Using this method, the researchers were able to determine that high exposure to fake news indeed decreased the trust that respondents place in the mainstream media. Conversely, the trust that respondents place in political institutions increased, on average, among those who experienced greater exposure to fake news.
According to the authors, this unexpected result can be explained by the fact that the fake news in circulation at the time of the study consisted primarily of "right-wing" misinformation, which was therefore favorable towards the Republican government in power. In other words, the content of these fake news held a pro-government stance, and it is thus understandable that they had the effect of improving respondents’ perception of political institutions. It should be noted, however, that the opposite effect was observed among respondents furthest to the left on the political spectrum — i.e. opponents of the current government.
Hence, the researchers conclude their study by pointing out that the consequences of exposure to fake news on individuals’ trust in the mainstream media and political institutions largely depend on the current media environment and political context.