The Relevance of Misinformation on Social Media



The widespread use of social media platforms has changed the information ecosystem worldwide. Anyone who has internet access and a device can produce and disseminate content. This context leads to information disorders of various types, often called “fake news”. Nevertheless, the expression “fake news” does not cover the problem’s complexity, and researchers have been adopting the terminologies misinformation (false information shared with no intention to deceive), disinformation (false information shared to cause harm or for-profit), and malinformation (information based on reality, used to inflict harm on a person, organisation, or country). Terminology issues are discussed in this dissertation from a cognitive-pragmatics perspective to develop appropriate definitions beyond the concepts of “true” and “false” that reflect the gradation and several nuances of the problem. While the proliferation of mis-/dis-information, bias, lies, and deception is as old a practice as humans themselves, civilisation has seen a remarkable coalition between social media algorithms, advertising systems, and people prepared to fabricate content for profit in the past few years. Social media are timely, easy to access, share, comment on and interact with; however, this convenience enables the spreading of mis-/dis-information. Social media are driven by emotionally involving content sharing, and people’s reactions propel these platforms. Hence, when a post is liked, commented upon or shared, the brain releases a small amount of dopamine. Mis-/dis-information distorts, manipulates, and falsifies facts to make the topic more surreal, bizarre, surprising, and controversial, and these aspects motivate sharing. As a result, a false story is much more likely to go viral than a true one. Still, mis-/dis-information is not easily detectable without critical deliberation, and it can profoundly influence people’s attitudes and decisions. Mis-/dis-information sharing is a growing issue that concerns society and academia, and much research effort has been devoted to tackling it in the last few years. There is, nonetheless, little understanding about why some people fall for mis-/dis-information (adherence). This dissertation advances the conceptualisation and general knowledge on the mis-/dis-information communicative phenomenon within social media from a cognitive-pragmatics perspective, demonstrating how pragmatics, particularly Relevance Theory (1986/1995), presents a robust framework to advance the studies in the area, opening the way to an exciting line of research. Later developments that broaden Relevance Theory (1986/1995), including Epistemic Vigilance (2010) and The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning (2011), are employed since they evaluate how speakers produce arguments to convince listeners and how listeners filter such arguments to evaluate and accept them – if they are sound. Furthermore, this study contextualises and demonstrates the impact and importance of the mis-/dis-information communicative phenomenon investigation, identifies recent approaches to the study of mis-/dis-information along with some theories currently applied to understand and tackle the subject matter, builds a preliminary theoretical foundation to improve terminology and definitions within the cognitive-pragmatics framework, and proposes a preliminary foundation for the conceptual development of the mis-/dis-information adherence phenomenon.

Keywords: Misinformation. Fake News. Relevance Theory. Pragmatics. Epistemic Vigilance.