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Exposure to and belief in disinformation – Executive summary of D3.2.3


Scope of the summary and report

This executive summary describes three key findings emanating from the comparative EDMO BELUX survey conducted in Spring 2022, which sought to gain insight in the spread of disinformation among Belgian and Luxembourgish populations. We study exposure to, belief in, perceived causes of and solutions for disinformation in four regions—Flanders, Wallonia, Brussels and Luxembourg—with a representative sample of N=1,466 respondents.

The findings of our survey tell a cautionary tale. Regarding exposure and belief, we find that citizens in Belgium and Luxembourg are exposed to disinformation, especially the youth, social media users and politically interested individuals. Beyond exposure, we find that belief in disinformation is more prevalent amongst younger citizens, those with right-wing ideological viewpoints, and those who hold general conspiracy beliefs. Finally, our findings indicate that citizens primarily attribute blame for disinformation to social media platforms themselves, while also pointing a finger at regular people’s news consumption, the government, and traditional media.

Key Findings

Key finding 1: the Belgian and Luxembourgish population, especially the youth, social media users and politically interested citizens, are exposed to disinformation.

While exposure to disinformation differs between depending on the topic, exposure is far from zero (between 14% and 51% of respondents per false claim tested). Luxembourgish citizens seem to be least exposed to disinformation, whereas exposure is highest in the Brussels sample.

Younger age cohorts (18 to 29 years old) are more likely to encounter disinformation, whereas differences on gender and level of education are much smaller. Similarly, use of social media leads to greater disinformation exposure. Moreover, having right-wing ideological affiliations and being politically interested in general lead to more exposure to disinformation. Importantly, conspiracy beliefs relate strongly to disinformation exposure: the effect is the strongest of all political attitudes included in the analysis and is consistent across regions.

Key finding 2: citizens generally do not believe disinformation, but the subpopulation that does believe false claims, tends to hold deep-rooted conspiracy beliefs.

On a positive note, the average respondent in our survey does not believe the disinformation claims we tested. However, worryingly, the factual items also score relatively poorly. When looking at who is more likely to believe disinformation, we find that younger, female, and more trusting citizens are more likely to do so. Most importantly, we find a strong connection between disinformation belief and so-called conspiracy beliefs: citizens that believe in disinformation, tend to also adhere to more generalized claims of conspiracy, which makes them vulnerable to future disinformation. These findings should raise concern about the effectiveness of efforts to counter disinformation, such as fact checking, since these citizens may simply reject such efforts outright.

Key finding 3: social media algorithms and gullible news consumption are deemed primary contributors to disinformation belief, social media content restrictions and fact-checking are acceptable solutions.

The algorithms of social media platforms, followed by the news consumption of regular people, are deemed primary contributors to the problem of disinformation belief, whereas legacy media (such as newspapers, television and radio) and government policy are seen as less important causes. Moreover, three out of four respondents support further content restrictions on social media to shield “gullible” citizens from false information on social media. At the same time, when it comes to legacy media, people generally also think a critical stance is best, although a majority deems fact checks a good idea as well.

Download the full executive summary here (PDF).