The many challenges of disinformation: The role of regulation, journalism, and freedom of opinion


Cathleen Berger, Dr. Kai Unzicker


There is a continuous slate of articles, features, and other coverage that tackle “disinformation” in light of the super election year of 2024. Again and again people are asking: Can targeted disinformation campaigns manipulate opinions and influence elections? We are obviously asking ourselves these questions, too. At the same time, we want to know in how far we might be stuck in our own “bubble” and whether society at large agrees. The results of our representative survey, which we’ve just published in our study “Disconcerted Public”, are as alarming as they motivate us (and people) to act.

In an increasingly digitised world, where information is abundant and the distinction between true and false often murky, the spread of disinformation is threatening democracy and social cohesion. Our study results are unfortunately strikingly clear: concerns and an awareness of the threat of disinformation has arrived in all parts of society, both in Germany and the U.S. An overwhelming majority of respondents considers disinformation a serious problem for democracy and social cohesion. Most notably, respondents point to the connection between disinformation and the manipulation of political opinion, the influence on elections and the division of society.

Trust and controversies in the digital realm

There is a snag in digital spaces: It is worrisome that almost half of all respondents is unsure about the veracity of information online and one third indicates encounters with disinformation in the last few months. Respondents are most likely to encounter disinformation on social media, but also on blogs and news sites as well as messenger services, such as WhatsApp or Telegram. TikTok, X (Twitter) and Facebook present the highest rate of disinformation. Topics, such as immigration, climate crises, health, warfare as well as elections, are identified most often.

Protest groups, activists, bloggers, influencers, and political actors, both domestic and foreign, are most often assumed to be perpetrators and people responsible for the spread of disinformation.

Trust in the media appears to be decisive: Respondents with low trust in the media are more likely to consider disinformation politically motivated and used for discrediting opponents, and they are more susceptible to encountering disinformation. There is an urgent need to act here to strengthen people’s trust in the media landscape and increase resilience in countering disinformation.

The U.S., polarisation and what might be in store for the German public

The comparison with the U.S. public shows that people are both more disconcerted and encounter disinformation even more frequently. Debates are more polarised, and people are significantly more likely to suspect the other political camp as the aggressor. This highlights the global dimension of the problem and underscores the need to collaborate across borders to manage this challenge. On that note, regulation has an important part to play: Disinformation must be researched, detected, and demonetised. For that, we require platforms to be more transparent and assume larger responsibility. At the same time, it is crucial to adopt a proportionate approach, which counters manipulation and false information but does not infringe on freedom of expression. The European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA) could be a trendsetter here.

The comparison and our results also show how important it is to strengthen trustworthy and reliable sources of information. Quality journalism that is based on facts and takes different perspectives into account is an effective antidote to manipulation and polarisation. On the one hand, journalists must be able to continue to fulfil their responsibility to actively expose disinformation and inform the public about its effects. At the same time, we must strengthen trust in the media and promote an independent and pluralistic media landscape. This is the only way to ensure that citizens receive reliable information and are able to recognise and counter disinformation. An informed public is the best defence against disinformation and manipulation.

What happens next?

The results of this study also highlight the need for a broad societal discourse on how to counter disinformation and improve our political debating culture. In doing so, we must ensure that regulatory measures do not restrict freedom of expression but offer balanced protection against manipulation.

Overall, it is crucial that political parties, governments, the media and everyone communicate transparently, seriously and truthfully to minimise the scope for ambiguity and uncertainty. Only then, can we effectively counter disinformation campaigns and protect fundamental democratic values.

The study provides a wealth of representative data. Anyone wishing to examine the links between trust in the media and political leaning, between the use of different networks and the perception of disinformation, can find many relevant pointers here. In view of the upcoming state elections in Germany this year, there is certainly value in developing even more targeted recommendations for action.


Click here to download the study and here for the press release.

Cathleen Berger

Cathleen Berger


Cathleen Berger’s professional experience spans across sectors: academia, government, non-profit, corporate, and start-up. Her work and research focus on the intersection of digital technologies, sustainability, and social impact. She currently works with the Bertelsmann Stiftung as Co-Lead for Upgrade Democracy as well as the Reinhard Mohn Prize 2024 and Senior Expert on future technologies and sustainability. In addition, she occasionally advises and works with social purpose companies and organisations on their climate and social impact strategies.

Previously, she directed the B Corporation certification process of a pre-seed climate tech start-up, launched and headed up Mozilla’s environmental sustainability programme, worked within the International Cyber Policy Coordination Staff at the German Foreign Office, as a consultant with Global Partners Digital, a research assistant at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), and a visiting lecturer at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena.

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Dr. Kai Unzicker

Dr. Kai Unzicker


Dr. Kai Unzicker is a senior project manager in Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Democracy and Cohesion program. He is co-leader of the Upgrade Democracy project, which focuses on the opportunities and risks of digitization for democracy. Previously, he has developed the “Social Cohesion Radar” for the Bertelsmann Stiftung since 2011. In numerous studies, he has examined societal changes in an international comparison, in Germany, and at the regional and local level. He frequently speaks in the media or at events on the topics of cohesion, trust, justice and solidarity, and, more recently, disinformation. He is one of the spokespersons for the “Alliance for Social Cohesion,” an alliance of several foundations whose work focuses in different ways on strengthening cohesion in Germany. In 2018, he was responsible for the Reinhard Mohn Prize on the topic of “Living diversity – shaping society” as project manager. From 2004 to 2011, he was a researcher at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence at Bielefeld University. Kai Unzicker studied sociology, psychology and philosophy at the Philipps University of Marburg from 1998 to 2004.   

Further information, including publications and projects, can be found on the Bertelsmann Stiftung website: Profile of Dr. Kai Unzicker 

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