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Fake news about fake news. A socio-cognitive perspective on some myths of online disinformation

  • Fabio Paglieri (ISTC-CNR)
29 March 2019
Lectures in Discourse Studies
van Wijkplaats
Van Wijkplaats 2
2311 BX Leiden


One of the most problematic and controversial impacts of cognitive technologies on societies is online disinformation (Del Vicario et al., 2016): in its 2013 Global Risks report, the World Economic Forum devoted a chapter to outline the danger of “Digital Wildfires in a Hyperconnected World”, and since then the buzz about fake news has steadily increased (Floridi, 2014). As a side effect, ironically yet not surprisingly, there are now fake news about fake news. This paper argues against four widespread equivocations:

  1. Fake news are a contemporary plague. This is historical fiction: false information has always circulated in human societies, and its social impact was no less in the past than it is today. The Constitutum Constantini, a forged document used for centuries to justify the temporal power of the  Catholic Church, is just the most obvious example (see also Buonanno, 2009).
  2. Fake news are becoming more frequent in our information ecology. False information is certainly more abundant nowadays than in the past, but is its increase greater than the increase in information in general, be it accurate or inaccurate? There is no support for a positive answer to the latter claim; on the contrary, it has been argued (Hemp, 2009; Gleick, 2011) that the real challenge for our cognitive system is the amount of information we are exposed to, not its quality.
  3. Fake news are a cancer to be eradicated. The most frequent reaction against fake news is extermination: either by fighting them online, e.g. via debunking, or by punishing them through legal means, e.g. as recently proposed in Italy by two Senators of the past legislature (Zanda & Filippin, 2017). Unfortunately, effectiveness of debunking is dubious at best (Lewandowsky et al., 2012; Chan et al., 2017), whereas targeting online disinformation via legal means is at risk of trivializing the epistemic complexity of information assessment, jeopardizing freedom of expression, or both. In contrast, online disinformation is an unavoidable feature of free speech, one that needs to be valued as a pedagogical tool to teach people how to deal with it – much like reinforcing the immune system of children by controlled exposure to germs, rather than sterilizing their environment.
  4. Fake news are bad because they spread falsehood. Falsehood has been around for a very long time and does not make fake news especially alarming nowadays. The real danger in contemporary disinformation is oversimplification: the dominant mantra about knowledge is that it is easy – easy to both access and assess. Hence the widespread disregard for experts, and the conviction that well-intentioned laypeople can do wonders in all areas: from science to politics, from education to world economy. This belief is mistaken and dangerous, yet it cannot be eradicated by an equally oversimplified alternative (basically, “shut up and trust your betters”). Some recent works on the psychology of reasoning (Paglieri, 2016; Mercier & Sperber, 2017) suggest a different treatment for online disinformation, one aimed at making people more aware of the complexities of knowledge.



Buonanno, E. (2009). Sarà vero. Falsi, sospetti e bufale che hanno fatto la storia. Torino: Einaudi.

Chan, M., Jones, C., Hall Jamieson, K., & Albarracín, D. (2017). Debunking: a meta-analysis of the psychological efficacy of messages countering misinformation. Psychological Science, 28(11), 1531–1546.

Del Vicario, M., Bessi, A., Zollo, F., Petroni, F., Scala, A., Caldarelli, G., Stanley, E., & Quattrociocchi, W. (2016). The spreading of misinformation online. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(3), 534.

Floridi, L. (2014). The fourth revolution. How the infosphere is reshaping human reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gleick, J. (2011). The information: a history, a theory, a flood. New York: Pantheon Books.

Hemp, P. (2009). Death by information overload. Harvard Business Review, 87(9), 82–89.

Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U., Seifert, C., Schwarz, N., & Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and its correction: continued influence and successful debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(3), 106–131.

Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (2017). The enigma of reason. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Paglieri, F. (2016). La cura della ragione. Bologna: Il Mulino.

World Economic Forum (2013). Global Risks 2013, 8th edition. Geneva: World Economic Forum.

Zanda, L., & Filippin, R. (2017). Norme generali in materia di social network e per il contrasto della diffusione su internet di contenuti illeciti e delle fake news. DDL S. 3001, disegno di legge presentato al Senato il 14 dicembre 2017


Fabio Paglieri is a researcher at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies of the Italian National Research Council (ISTC-CNR). His main areas of interest are argumentation theory, belief dynamics, and decision-making. He has published extensively on all these topics, and he is the current President of the Italian Association of Cognitive Science (AISC), chairman of the Steering Committee of the European Conference on Argumentation (ECA), and editor-in-chief of two scholarly journals, Topoi. An International Review of Philosophy (Springer), and Sistemi Intelligenti (Il Mulino).

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