‘Fake News’ in Science Communication : Emotions and Strategies of Coping with Dissonance Online

In view of events such as the public denial of climate change research by well-known politicians, the effects of postfactual disinformation and emotionalisation are discussed for science. Here, so-called ‘fake news’ are of focus. These are considered problematic, particularly in a high-choice media environment as users tend to show selective behaviour. Much research has demonstrated this selective exposure approach, which has roots in the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Festinger, 1957). However, research on the processes of coping with dissonance is still considered sparse. In particular, communication scholars have overlooked emotional states and negotiations. This article analyses the affects that are aroused when users are confronted with opinion-challenging disinformation and how they (emotionally) cope by using different strategies for online information. For this, we used the context of climate change that is widely accepted in Germany. The innovative research design included pre- and post-survey research, stimulus exposure (denying ‘fake news’), observations, and retrospective interviews (n = 50). Through this, we find that perceptions and coping strategies vary individually and that overt behaviour, such as searching for counter-arguments, should be seen against the background of individual ideas and motivations, such as believing in an easy rejection of arguments. Confirming neuroscientific findings, participants felt relieved and satisfied once they were able to dissolve their dissonant state and negative arousal. Dissatisfaction and frustration were expressed if this had not been accomplished.


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