Defined as purposely created false content, disinformation has been one of the most urgent political problems worldwide in the past decade. The rapid spread of disinformation that has been made possible by fast-developing technologies has prompted countries to react and address this challenge, with varied levels of success.

Some strategies to combat disinformation have achieved more impact than others, yet there is no silver bullet in effectively wringing disinformation out of the communication ecosystem. The local context, a combination of factors including the health of the media system, the level of education, the quality of political debate, and the type of access to information, plays a major role in the society’s overall resistance to disinformation.

Success in staving off the effects of disinformation is affected to a large extent by information resilience defined as a society’s ability to (1) secure trustworthy societal systems and structures, (2) support related knowledge institutions that elicit trust, and (3) reinforce citizenship through media and information literacy that strengthens people’s ability to identify trustworthy sources. At the center of this concept of information resilience is a healthy level of trust (Staender and Humprecht, 2022).

Trust is especially important in elections, which is one of the most impactful democratic actions available to citizens. When disinformation erodes trust in societal systems such as public service protocols and practices as well as media outlets, and trust in one’s fellow citizens is challenged, the consequences for society are devastating as witnessed, for example, in the United States during the Capitol Riots in January 2021 (Jeppesen et al., 2022).

Governments and societies at large have become aware of disinformation, which as early as 2018 was recognized as a threat to democracy by 83% of Europeans and perceived as “highly concerning” by 74% of the continent’s internet users (Eurobarometer, 2018). The EU as a result has taken a string of measures to address disinformation in recent years, including the creation of EU vs Disinfo, a platformFootnote 1 whose task is to detect and react to disinformation campaigns that have the potential to destabilize the Union or its member countries. The European Commission followed suit with a bevy of recommendations aimed at protecting the integrity and fairness of European elections. EU member countries also joined forces in setting up an Action Plan against Disinformation (European Commission, 2018) in line with their national defense and security strategies. The EU also spawned an initiative that led to the adoption of the Code of Practice on Disinformation,Footnote 2 a self-governance guide targeting tech platforms, the online ad industry, and the fact-checking community, among others.

Other initiatives aimed at combating disinformation launched by the EU include the Social Observatory for Disinformation and Social Media Analysis (SOMA) which aims to bring together researchers, fact-checkers, and media organizations, and the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO)Footnote 3 launched in June 2020 to ensure closer coordination amongst fact-checking organizations, the academic community, media practitioners, and teachers with tech companies and national authorities.

But despite an increase in strategies to address disinformation in recent years, the question of differing national factors of information resilience has received less attention and consideration in policy circles. Similarly, little research on national resilience to false information has been carried out. As the online space, due to the speed, amount, and virality, is a fertile ground for the fast delivery of disinformation, allowing foreign interference in elections, a vast amount of the recent research work on elections and disinformation has focused on the internet and global social media platformsFootnote 4 without properly studying the impact on audiences of the digital platforms run by legacy media.

Social media is a key conduit for the distribution of disinformation. Nevertheless, the disinformation problem is not bound to global platforms, and not even to the internet. In some European countries, for example, legacy media outlets are natural channels of false information distribution as well (Dragomir and Horowitz in print, 2023). These outlets have a significant impact as they attract a substantial audience in their traditional sector and simultaneously exert considerable influence on the online landscape by operating high-traffic websites. For instance, major television stations enjoy immense popularity across most European nations, and at the same time, their content is readily accessible on their own digital platforms, which often attract a large number of followers, too. At the same time, legacy media often republish content that turns out to be misleading without checking its veracity, further contributing to spreading false information in society.

At the same time, despite the growing literature on societal and media trust, the connection between trust and resilience to disinformation has been less discussed.

Understanding what makes a country vulnerable to or resilient against online disinformation, especially when it comes to elections, is essential in designing the right strategies aimed at combating disinformation. We argue that in order to develop sustainable responses to disinformation, we need to understand a variety of contextual factors, including trust, which, we argue in this article, is a central factor of resilience.

This article proposes that, in order to understand national information resilience to inform policies and other measures to support democracy, it is essential to examine country contexts from three vantage points: (1) factors that illustrate key tenets of the national governance environment, (2) media and information ecosystem, and (3) media use practices including trust in media. These dimensions then need to be reflected against (4) disinformation narratives in their specific national contexts and (5) national strategies to combat disinformation.

This article tests the five-step approach on four European countries that have been influenced by the EU’s efforts to curb disinformation, yet represent a variety of disinformation threats and media systems: Austria, Czechia, Finland, and Spain.

Disinformation and national resilience: perspectives from earlier research

Perception, reception, and impact of disinformation (Hameleers et al., 2022; Knuutila et al., 2022), technologies that allow disinformation to flourish (Staender and Humprecht, 2022), and the impact of the business model of the global tech giants on the viral spread of disinformation (Zuboff, 2019) have been addressed in recent research, including case studies of platforms and campaigns in various countries. Numerous aspects of disinformation have been studied to date, including its role in undermining trust in democratic institutions (Allcott and Gentzkow, 2018), manipulating political discourse (Tucker et al., 2018), and even swaying election results (Allcott and Gentzkow, 2017).

One of the obvious challenges to democratic participation is disinformation around elections. Following the famous research effort on online disinformation and the 2016 U.S. presidential elections (Faris et al., 2017) a significant body of disinformation research has focused on specific electoral events around the world, addressing types of disinformation, sources, and audiences, platforms, spread of disinformation, as well as regulatory efforts and media and information literacy initiatives set up to counter disinformation (Bovet and Makse, 2019; Carral et al., 2023; Eady et al., 2023; Flamino et al., 2023; Schoch et al., 2022).

Some studies have tackled the impact of disinformation on voter behavior and election outcomes including consequences of exposure to disinformation such as confusion among voters, which leads to apathy or incorrect voting choices (Lazer et al., 2018), declining support for the candidate associated with fake news (Pennycook et al., 2018), decrease in voter turnout (Guess et al., 2019), lower political engagement (Tandoc et al., 2018), increased polarization and a declining civil discourse (Dubois and Blank, 2018). All these trends often result in political tensions and confrontations (Pérez-Curiel et al., 2022), and declining trust in the electoral process (Lelkes and Westwood, 2020).

Research has also highlighted the role of social media platforms as a primary conduit for the dissemination of disinformation (Allcott and Gentzkow, 2017) including the virality of disinformation on those platforms (Vosoughi et al., 2018). A string of studies have analyzed the use of algorithms on social media platforms in inadvertently amplifying disinformation by promoting sensational or controversial content without verifying its veracity (Zuckerberg, 2018) and the use of bots in spreading disinformation (Sanovich et al., 2018).

Because of the baleful impact of disinformation, the search for effective responses to it has intensified in recent years. Solutions put forward include a combination of fact-checking, digital literacy education, and regulatory measures (Mezzanotte et al., 2019). In some countries, media literacy, particularly when it comes to elections, has been found to be an effective strategy to reduce people’s susceptibility to false news (Wardle and Derakhshan, 2017). Northern European countries (Sweden and Germany) on the other hand have shown higher receptivity towards fact-checking on political issues than their Southern European peers (Spain, Portugal, and Italy) (Lyons et al., 2020). Finally, concern has been on the rise regarding the practice of various governments, under the pretext of safeguarding the right to truthful information, to adopt anti-disinformation laws and regulations that practically give them a legal basis to censor the online space and spy on their citizens.

However, less attention has been paid to the understanding of the contextual factors that have an impact on the creation and distribution of disinformation and, consequently, on elections: what makes a country vulnerable to, or resilient against, online disinformation Moreover, we know relatively little about how to define and assess resilience to (online) disinformation: are there universal principles and factors that build resilience in the global online environment, and to what extent is resilience possibly dependent on contextual factors?

Research that directly addresses resilience against disinformation or that studies resilience indirectly has been conducted in the past years.Footnote 5 Studies and policy briefs either refer to resilience to disinformation in general terms or when discussing a particular country, but rarely in a comparative manner (Filipec, 2019; Golob et al., 2021; Sanchez, 2021). Another strand of research features pedagogical, cognitive, and psychological conceptualizations and models to address individuals’ literacy skills to detect false information (McDougall, 2019; Lee et al., 2022; Rodrigo et al., 2022).

A major contribution to comparative studies on national resilience against online disinformation comes from a team of scholars in Switzerland and Belgium (Humprecht et al., 2020; Humprecht et al., 2021). In their work, national resilience is defined as a structural context in which disinformation does not reach a large number of citizens; that is, a system that provides a safety net for society against false narratives and propaganda (Humprecht et al., 2020). Following this analysis, resilience in a broader sense can be seen as societies’ ability to maintain their democratic structure and to resist misleading information and anti-democratic influences. Resilience in this definition can be seen as a three-layered phenomenon consisting of macro-level structural factors, meso-level organizational factors, and micro-level factors pertaining to individuals (Frischlich and Humprecht, 2021).

In their comparative analysis, based on statistics of political, economic, and media environments in 16 countries, the researchers found three distinct country clusters: (a) the media-supportive, consensual group of Western European democracies and Canada; (b) the polarized cluster consisting of Southern European countries; and (c) the low trust, politicized, and fragmented environment of the United States (Humprecht et al., 2020).

Unsurprisingly, the study suggested that the political environment and news consumption are essential considerations in the overall buildup of resilience: polarization and populist politics diminish trust in journalism and promote instead social media as a news source. Their study on audiences’ resilience capacity, based on national surveys in six European countries, confirmed that the resilience factors greatly depend on specific national contexts (Humprecht et al., 2021).

Another multi-country survey on resilience concluded that “a richer conception of resilience requires additional theoretical work investigating the relationships (a) between macro‐level covariates and micro‐level indicators of resilience and (b) between variables within these analytic categories.” (Boulianne et al., 2022).

This article aims to build on the study of resilience by illustrating a multi-dimensional analytical approach to information resilience that can be used as a tool to assess the context-specific factors that help build up a society’s resilience to disinformation.

Analytical approach

Our starting point is that information resilience is a multi-dimensional concept and, in empirical analyses, needs to be examined accordingly. Therefore, we have drawn from several qualitative and quantitative analytical approaches that have been successful in mapping the characteristics of media systems as well as indicators that have been used in a series of comparative country analyses to assess resilience to online disinformation. These factors can be understood as relating to political and governance-related characteristics of a country, to the country’s media system and market, and to the audiences’ experiences and perceptions (such as trust in media and frequency of countering disinformation).

To anchor those contextual-structural factors in specific empirical realities pertaining to disinformation, we have then engaged in qualitative descriptive analysis of disinformation narratives, and measures against it, in each country. The reason for the combination of quantitative secondary statistical data, and a qualitative descriptive analysis is to show the multidimensionality of information resilience, and the variety of contexts and approaches across the EU.

To select our cases, we have used the seminal categorization model of media systems by Hallin and Mancini (Hallin and Mancini, 2004) model of liberal, democratic corporatist, and polarized-pluralist systems and its translation into comparable indicators (Brüggemann et al., 2014) as well as the updates to the model that include Central and Eastern European countries (Castro Herrero et al., 2017).

In addition, our choice has been informed by a study on the structural resilience to disinformation (Humprecht et al., 2020) that has found two main clusters in Europe: polarized countries of Southern Europe (the polarized-pluralist media system in Hallin and Mancini’s, 2004 model) and media-supportive and consensual countries that show a high resilience to disinformation (including both Northern European democratic corporatist and liberal countries). In this article, we compare Austria, Czechia, Finland, and Spain for model diversity-related reasons, but also because these countries have held parliamentary elections in 2022 or 2023, hence disinformation could be expected to be a challenge or at least a topic of public debate.

To ground the analysis in a set of comparative data, we use a variety of statistics and indices, selected to illustrate, compare, and contrast different aspects of the three contextual dimensions, that is, societal-political, media, and audience-user contexts in the case countries. These datasets were chosen partly because similar data has been used to describe these contextual dimensions in the aforementioned comparative factor analysis on structural resilience to online disinformation (Humprecht et al., 2020), in a comparative, multi-method study on the role of public service media in combating disinformation (Aslama et al., 2021) and in a two-country comparison on information resilience for a policy brief (Balčytienė and Horowitz, 2023). They also originate from well-known, vetted, and widely used open-access sources (see the Supplementary Appendix for the full list of statistics and indicators used). With this secondary, quantitative research material, we can systematically detect basic similarities and differences between the case countries.

Using document analysis as a method, we have mapped both central disinformation narratives of recent years, as well as initiatives and strategies employed to fight disinformation identified during the past four years. The focus has been on legal provisions (laws, regulations, and sanctions related to disinformation) and media literacy (programs funded by the government, NGOs, or private entities aimed at boosting the media and digital literacy in the country as well as fact-checking initiatives).

The aim of this qualitative analysis is to find possible relationships between the type of strategies and initiatives aimed to fight disinformation on the one hand, and the state of democracy and media freedom and the type of access to information in the national context, on the other.

Illustrating the analysis: country comparisons


Country typology

Austria belongs to the Democratic Corporatist Model whose main characteristics are a high level of newspaper circulation, a long tradition of respect for press freedom, strong government support for the media, and complex media regulation. Media in this model tends to mirror the political division in society due to its alignment with organized social groups (Hallin and Mancini, 2004).

Austria has a healthy level of democracy, yet it has displayed in recent years a tendency of growing polarization. Although there are low levels of government disinformation, the country sports relatively lower levels of trust in authorities (government, parliament, or the EU) than other European nations in the Democratic Corporatist Model (i.e., Nordic countries). When it comes to press freedom, Austria has a diverse and vibrant media market, and its public broadcaster, ORF, is among the few fully independent public media in Europe, enjoying a high level of trust among its audiences. However, the country has witnessed a visible erosion of media freedom, dropping from a respectable 11 place in the 2017 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom index to 29th place in 2023, a result of the growing political influence in the media, obstruction of journalists by police and growing media ownership concentration (RSF, 2022). Moreover, its risks to the protection of freedom of expression, media market plurality, media literacy policies, and political independence of national media heightened to medium in recent years.

Disinformation narratives

With the growing popularity of social media, disinformation has led to a significant intensification of hatred against people who are perceived by Austrian society as “aliens.” False content is rife online (on social media and internet portals) as well as in legacy media, which often share such news without verifying it (Schafer, 2023).

The predominant narrative, with a history going back three decades, is focused on how migrants and refugees abuse the Austrian social welfare system, depriving the locals of funds and access to services. Disinformation on this topic is widely shared on social media, but also regurgitated in newspapers and promoted by some of the country’s politicians. The anti-foreigner disinformation narrative has also targeted the Ukrainian population as it became clear following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia that many Ukrainian refugees who came to Austria in 2015–2016 would not return soon to their devastated country. Particularly right-wing media, such as AUF1, an online news program established by a former head of the far-right youth arm of the Freedom Party, led in spreading a narrative according to which the Russian aggression was aimed at liberating Ukraine of Nazis (Schafer, 2023). Hatred against Muslims is another major element of the anti-foreigner narrative, spiking from time to time after key events (such as the wave of refugees who fled from the war in Syria in 2015/2016) (Schafer, 2023).

As in other European countries, the COVID-19 pandemic offered a boon to the main channels of disinformation, uniting anti-vaxxers and attracting swathes of Austrian society. Anti-foreigner discourse became part of that narrative, too. For example, the “big reset” theory according to which Bill Gates planned the pandemic to benefit from it unearthed a wave of anti-Semitism that is believed to have been slumbering across many parts of Austrian society (Schafer, 2023).

The disinformation narratives had a major impact on the electoral process in Austria. Mostly tied to far-right ideologies, disinformation led to divisive elections in recent years, starting with the parliamentary elections of 2017 that brought to power the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) for the first time in more than a decade (Koponen, 2018). The next election, however, held in 2019, was less affected by disinformation mostly because it was triggered by the resignation earlier that year of FPÖ’s leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, following a massive scandal: Strache was filmed offering lucrative public contracts to a relative of a Russian oligarch, a story that led to a collapse of the public support for FPÖ.

Strategies against disinformation

The response to disinformation in Austria has been a combination of legislation, self-regulation, and literacy. The main legal tool used against disinformation is an article of the criminal code that punishes incitement to hatred. A legal provision against the spread of disinformation was binned in 2015 for having been rarely used (Schafer, 2023). However, in recent years, the Austrian authorities have resumed their anti-disinformation efforts, the measures including an action plan to combat deep fakes published by the government in 2022 (Kabelka, 2022), and a new law proposed by the State Protection Service (DSN) that would introduce penalties for those who spread disinformation (ORF, 2023).

As for self-regulation, most quality media and independent journalists abide by the ethical code of the Austria Press Council, which handles complaints about false news content. However, the decisions of the Council are not legally binding, having no effect on disinformation. The country’s strong tabloid media sector, with newspapers such as Kronen Zeitung, which leads with a circulation of 750,000 copies sold every day, churns out large amounts of untrue, unverified, biased, and sensationalistic content (Koponen, 2018).

NGOs that work on media literacy have been shifting their efforts towards disinformation. They include Mimikama, an education-focused association, Kobuk, a voluntary media monitoring blog, and the German-Austrian Digital Media Observatory (GADMO), an EU-funded disinformation-monitoring hub that covers Germany and Austria. Various news outlets including the news agencies APA, DPA, and AFP Faktencheck, the fact-checking group Correctiv in Berlin as well as university and research institutions in Austria and Germany have also stepped up their efforts to study and expose disinformation in the German language.


Country typology

Czechia is representative of the Central cluster in the Eastern European media system model, which is characterized by the relative strength of public media and the low levels of foreign ownership in private media (Castro Herrero et al., 2017). The country has a relatively solid democracy, especially compared to other nations in Eastern Europe. With a good record of press freedom, the 14th position in the RSF index (RSF, 2022), a strong public broadcaster, and a competitive private media sector, Czechia has one of the healthiest media ecosystems in Europe.

Nevertheless, the country has recently shown major vulnerabilities to disinformation, a result of the government’s low capacity to regulate false narratives, a sizable amount of government-sponsored disinformation, and low levels of civic participation online, media literacy preparedness, and trust in the media.

Disinformation narratives

With its roots in the anti-Islam movement, the disinformation scene in Czechia has significantly altered during the past decade when it imported a spate of false news narratives from Western Europe. They are often boosted by various high officials and political parties. Former President Miloš Zeman, for example, was known for the legitimacy he provided to the anti-Islam and anti-immigration rhetoric (Charvát, 2023). Around 2017, the disinformation scene changed dramatically as a new narrative consisting of overt distrust in established political parties and hatred of the EU and liberal democracy in general rose in prominence, fueled by a string of online portals, such as the tabloid website Parlamentní Listy, the country’s flagship disinformation spreading portal (Charvát, 2023).

Overall, the disinformation that flooded the Czech media space in the past five years has been aligned with the propaganda distributed by Russian government-funded channels. The war in Ukraine led to a halt in the pro-Russian disinformation in Czechia, due to a large extent to the overwhelming support of the Czech society for Ukraine. However, a few weeks into the war, the pro-Russian narrative about the conflict, accompanied by a wide array of attacks on the EU, the U.S., and NATO, intensified in the country. Finally, COVID-19 triggered a wave of disinformation narratives, some of them also linked to pro-Russian propaganda (Charvát, 2023).

As it was expected, the disinformation narratives have also affected the electoral process. In the presidential elections held in January 2023, disinformation linked with Russia was rife and spread over a multitude of channels including media outlets, social media, or chain emails (Kremlin Watchers Movement Team, 2023). In the parliamentary elections held in the autumn 2021, Russia-funded media openly promoted an anti-establishment narrative in line with the Kremlin’s socially divisive communication strategy (Šefčíková, 2022).

The outcome of those waves of disinformation was an extreme radicalization and polarization of Czech society (Charvát, 2023), which led to slow vaccine uptake and public demonstrations calling for an end to sanctions on Russia (Coakley, 2023).

Strategies against disinformation

The response of the Czech authorities to disinformation has been rather tardy and hence ineffectual. Initially, they tried to stave off disinformation by blocking access to it. In 2022, Czech authorities asked domestic internet service providers to block websites known for spreading pro-Russian propaganda. They then asked global tech platforms to turn down revenues from individuals known to spread disinformation.

Building on those efforts, in 2022, the Czech government created the position of media and disinformation commissioner (Coakley, 2023). The first man in that job, former journalist Michal Klima drafted an action plan that proposed funding for NGOs focused on fighting disinformation and an end to government advertising on websites known to publish false news (Coakley, 2023). Yet, following a strong reaction from the public who saw in such plans an attempt to institute government censorship, Klima’s job was scrapped, his tasks being passed to a newly created post of national security advisor (Gosling, 2023).

Another key player that contributed to the failure of the Czech authorities to fight disinformation is the publishing industry, particularly large media houses owned by oligarchs such as former premier Andrej Babis or Daniel Kretinsky, a wealthy businessman. They vocally opposed any form of government intervention in supporting anti-disinformation organizations.


Country typology

Like Austria, Finland belongs to the Democratic Corporatist Model in the typology by Hallin and Mancini (2004). Finland has also been called a “media welfare state” (Syvertsen et al., 2014), characterized by strong, institutionalized editorial freedom as well as the ideal of universal access to content and services, partly ensured by a robust public service media organization, the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle). Finland differs notably from the other case countries, Austria included, in that the trust in the government and national news media is remarkably high, which has been accredited to Finland’s top ranking in media literacy (Lessenski, 2022) and the country’s stellar press freedom records. That said, Finland has fallen in the RFS index from the top place to the 9th position in 2023. Similarly, societal trust is in decline, at least temporarily. In 2023, the new right-wing government attracted much criticism in its first weeks in office as its proponents blamed mainstream media for purposely creating scandals around certain politicians (Mac Dougall, 2023).

Disinformation narratives

Foreign disinformation came to be seen as a problem by the Finnish government after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 (Bayer et al., 2021). More recently, various false narratives about Finland’s activities against Russia have surfaced in connection to the Finnish NATO membership process (Moilanen et al., 2023). Still, despite the country’s complex geopolitical relationship with Russia, Finland has not been exposed to massive foreign disinformation campaigns lately. Some global disinformation narratives like QAnon (Koski, 2020) and COVID-19-related anti-vaccine and anti-establishment-related disinformation have been observed, many of them surprisingly literal “translations” from U.S.-based conspiracies, observed also elsewhere in Europe (Coluccini et al., 2022). In addition, NORDIS, an EU-funded hub for detecting and researching disinformation in Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, has documented Nordic disinformation campaigns similar from country to country (Greneaa Hansen et al., 2022).

While the 2023 parliamentary elections witnessed little election manipulation, apart from the increase of fake and troll social media accounts (Havula, 2023), global conspiracies went mainstream when past communication activities by the right-wing Finns party members of the new government were examined. For instance, several new ministers had referenced the Great Replacement theory on social media and even in the parliament session hall (Teivainen, 2023).

Strategies against disinformation

Of the four case countries, Finland has been assessed as the most resilient to online disinformation in terms of structural factors (Humprecht, Esser, and Van Aelst, 2020, p. 505). This resilience has sometimes been attributed specifically to the combination of press freedom, innovative media literacy policies, and other educational and e-participation activities (Lessenski, 2022).

Still, a report on the state of disinformation in Finland notes that official responses to disinformation have been limited until recently (Moilanen et al., 2023). Finland hosts only one independent fact-checking organization, Faktabaari, and features no sustainable funding mechanism for fact-checking. Furthermore, according to a study by NORDIS, collaborations between various stakeholders are not wide or systematic (Horowitz, 2022). In its media policy of 2018, the overall strategy is a combination of reliable information that is grounded in media self-regulation, reliable news delivery practices, and the provision of services in different languages (Bayer et al., 2021). While legislation has been recommended by some experts (Moilanen et al., 2023), literacy efforts have remained the de facto implemented, visible, and internationally celebrated measures (Mackintosh, 2019).


Country typology

Spain falls into the Polarized Pluralistic Media Model, per Hallin and Mancini taxonomy, a model characterized by a focus on the social elite rather than the masses, dependence of the press on government subsidies, a centralized electronic media system, less developed professionalization of journalism and collusion between the government, political parties and businesses in exerting control of the media.

Spain features a strong democracy, yet is in worse shape than other EU countries, with low trust in the authorities and a highly polarized society.

The country has a rather poor freedom press record for European standards, the 36th place in the RSF index (RSF, 2022), a result of high media ownership concentration, political polarization that fuels a growing rejection by society of journalism, and an increase in SLAPPs against media outlets and journalists.

Although the Spanish media sector is generally diverse, it presents a series of risks related to market plurality and independence of the media. The low levels of trust in the media have led to increased vulnerability to disinformation.

Disinformation narratives

Spain is so vulnerable to disinformation that almost any topic or event can be used to engender false narratives that can be endlessly perpetuated. The disinformation in Spain is a mix of real data and distorted or outright untrue information (Romero Vicente, 2023).

Four disinformation narratives have been dominating the Spanish info-sphere in recent years. One is political and economic polarization consisting of the intentional undermining of the image of politicians or the spread of distorted data on issues of national interest. Secondly, disinformation has built on Islamophobia and anti-Moroccan sentiment, a response to the swelling foreign populace in Spain during the past decade, with partisan websites or politicians blatantly promoting xenophobic discourse. As elsewhere, denialism and conspiracies related to the COVID-19 pandemic have proliferated in Spain, too. Finally, gender and identity-based disinformation has been thriving in the country, a combination of denial of sexist violence, campaigns against “gender ideology” and hoaxes targeting the LGBTQ+ community (Romero Vicente, 2023).

The galloping disinformation had a major impact on recent elections where false news about immigration policies or planned cuts in pensions have been widely vehiculated. These narratives had a damaging impact, for example, on the Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez who fell victim to a raft of attacks, which often used manipulated videos or just false information.

Strategies against disinformation

The response to disinformation in Spain has been a combination of legal and policy instruments and literacy initiatives.

Spain started to use its legislation that punishes offenses such as hate crimes, crimes against morality, threats to public order, insults or slander, and crimes against public health, to target disinformation perpetrators. A sentence of 15 months in prison and a fine of €1620 was carried out for spreading disinformation in 2022 in what became the first conviction for this type of offense in the country (García Bueno, 2022). While such court sentences may dissuade other people from spreading false news, legal provisions do not seem at all effective in preventing the spread of disinformation. Moreover, cases of people being fined for their comments on social media have proliferated in recent years in Spain, raising serious concerns about freedom of expression (Diario de Cádiz, 2023).

On the other hand, Spain has seen a rapid growth of an anti-disinformation movement thanks to the mobilization of numerous NGOs working on this topic. The growing audience of fact-checking groups such as, Newtral, Verificat, or Infoveritas, coupled with the increase of fact-checking initiatives embedded in media outlets (EFE Verifica, Verifica RTVE, Verifica A3N, AFOP Factual) stand proof that a current of countering disinformation narratives is maturing (Romero Vicente, 2023). Various anti-disinformation initiatives launched by the government or political parties have further helped the efforts to curb disinformation. PSOE, the Socialist Party in Spain, fearing the impact of disinformation on bending election results, has recently announced that it would establish a committee with a task to chase and denounce “hoaxes” spread by right-wing parties in 2023, a year of local and general elections.

Yet, such initiatives are an exception rather than the rule. The problem of disinformation in Spain is accentuated by political parties and individual politicians who overtly promote false news and propaganda. In the sole televised electoral debate before the Spanish general elections in July 2023, the leading candidate for the prime minister position, Alberto Núñez Feijóo of the Popular Party (PP) used Gish gallop, a debating tactic based on a rapid barrage of arguments, most of them false, aimed at preventing his opponent, the incumbent premier Sanchez, from responding by drowning him in a sea of unverifiable arguments (Dragomir, 2023).

Discussion: shared strategies, contextual challenges

Our analysis indicates that European-wide strategies, discussed in the introduction, do not directly translate into comparable resilience against disinformation. Rather, it seems that in each of these countries, disinformation poses a problem, but in different ways, which, it can be argued, is greatly influenced by the factors specific to each national context.

To be sure, countries approach disinformation differently. Elections, along with related disinformation content, are to a large extent influenced by national political, economic, and socio-cultural specificities.

Our comparative analysis underlines that while some forms of disinformation seem to be global, each country exhibits specific structural factors, strengths and weaknesses of the media system, practices of media use, and levels of trust in media, which together play a key role in how disinformation is received, perceived and used.

Austria has a vibrant journalistic culture, and the trust in national news media is relatively high, yet the country is challenged with structural issues, including corrupt media and attacks by various political groups against the public service broadcaster. The country’s relatively low score in press freedom rankings (compared to other European countries) illustrates those problems.

Czechia, on the other hand, scores relatively high in press freedom rankings, yet, with moderate or low levels of societal and media trust, disinformation has permeated its public discourse. One of the reasons, unveiled through our assessment, maybe that, although the country has traditionally featured a strong civil society, Czechs are not sufficiently active in online spaces to counter false narratives at their root.

Often seen as the poster child in fighting disinformation, Finland has been slow in reacting to foreign information interference but has not been dramatically influenced by it either. However, Finland’s strategy of free and robust journalism and literacy education, evident in its high scores in related rankings, has not protected the country from disinformation in internal political discourse. The high levels of trust in the government, parliament, and national media may have, counterintuitively, resulted in a situation where disinformation was thought to be marginal and not worth fact-checking. The scale of internal disinformation and xenophobic narratives has surfaced in mainstream news coverage only after the 2023 elections.

Finally, Spain is a solid example of how contextual factors affect resilience to disinformation. Low trust in authorities, a high level of social polarization, harshly punitive legislation that restricts freedom of expression, and highly partisan media, have together eroded Spain’s resilience to disinformation, making the country extremely vulnerable to false news narratives.

The country-specific challenges of resilience, clearly impacted by various structural considerations, are amplified by the nature of the problem—disinformation—and the nature of the essential element of resilience—trust. As Wardle and Derakshan (2017) have emphasized, false information can be spread accidentally, or purposely for political or economic gain (Wardle & Derakshan 2017). It can also take the form of presenting correct information in a misleading context to target individuals or groups. Disinformation can be specific to the country’s economic or political internal or foreign policy situation, or a global imported conspiracy theory. Similarly, if we understand the experience of trust in vetted, independent information sources as a central feature of resilience against false narratives, it is essential to remember that trust consists of multiple facets, including the media system, specific sources, and topics.

Furthermore, recent research on trust in legacy and online media indicates that experiences of trust are connected to a variety of demographic variables, values and attitudes, and other personal factors (Aslama et al., 2021; Strömbäck, 2020). In order to understand the role of trust in national information resilience we need to know more about how audiences see their media environment and what they may need in order to feel they are given reliable information, relatable content, accessible formats, and safe arenas for communication.

A slew of recent studies, for example, have also shed new light on the role of social media on users’ behaviors and attitudes. Based on data from a multi-wave field experiment on the behavior of Facebook users during the 2020 US presidential election, as part of the 2020 Facebook and Instagram Election Study (FIES), a recent article found that reducing exposure to content from like-minded sources on social networks is not correlated with reduced polarization in beliefs or attitudes (Nyhan et al., 2023). Other studies in the same study found that political polarization, although widespread on Facebook, is not a direct result of the algorithms used by the company in targeting users (Guess et al., 2023; Guess et al., 2023a; González-Bailón et al., 2023). Finally, for democracy to work, a healthy level of trust includes critical reflections on power (Nootens, 2018).

The stark differences in national contexts, coupled with the unique encounters of disinformation consumption in various European countries, suggest that a universal approach to tackling disinformation within the EU will yield disparate outcomes in each nation, as shown also by our country analysis in this article.


The research conducted for this article and for assessing the national information resilience in four European countries suggest that targeted actions such as media and information literacy education, or legislative measures, are not enough to effectively combat disinformation, especially during electoral periods.

A recent global overview of disinformation legislation has documented the harms to freedom of expression inflicted by laws that were supposedly aimed at curbing disinformation (Lim and Bradshaw, 2023). At the same time, to be effective, media literacy initiatives have to be nuanced and address a variety of audiences according to their needs. This principle has already been recognized by the EU for over a decade (e.g., Silver, 2009) but needs to be localized in different contexts. For instance, in Finland, based on its own research, the national media literacy authority (National Audiovisual Institute, KAVI), has documented specific needs of “inclusive media education.”Footnote 6

In general, it is evident that a more holistic approach to disinformation is needed. This need has been partly addressed by the efforts to curb the harms caused by platforms (most notably, the EU’s Digital Services Act PackageFootnote 7) and the desire to guarantee the existence of national independent media in the EU countries (the proposed European Media Freedom ActFootnote 8). The EU can adopt pan-European regulations aimed to combat disinformation that can have a significant impact on major players, including the world’s largest tech platforms. That can indirectly help clean up the info-sphere around elections. The recently introduced EU regulations have placed explicit responsibility on tech platforms to combat and eliminate disinformation from their platforms. As failure to comply with these regulations could lead to severe financial penalties, these regulations are expected to be a strong motivation for tech platforms to take swift action, particularly during times of elections when the distribution of information is intensifying.

However, the geographical area the EU regulates is diverse and, consequently, features varied capabilities and resources to implement those regulations. Moreover, politicians and government officials remain a major source of disinformation across Europe, which poses significant problems as these people are those in charge of crafting anti-disinformation policies and regulations.

Thus, to address the sheer complexity of the disinformation phenomenon, policies and strategies aimed at neutering false narratives, especially in the electoral process, should be anchored in comprehensive, multi-dimensional assessments of information resilience in national contexts.

Structural comparative analyses (such as those by Humprecht et al., 2020) are important for conceptualizing and assessing resilience, for academic endeavors but also for creating shared strategies within the EU and beyond. For example, a quantitative matrix known as Structural Indicators is part of the monitoring of the spread of disinformation under the EU-affiliated Code of Practice.Footnote 9 However, disinformation is a complex and contextual, ever-evolving phenomenon that is simultaneously global and local. To fully understand what is needed in specific countries to build information resilience ideally requires a variety of approaches, ranging from quantitative analysis to qualitative content and audience research. In addition, more granular research on the impact of various anti-disinformation strategies is needed to inform policy-making in this area.

Data on strategies that work combined with knowledge about the factors that influence the national information context are likely to improve the effectiveness of the responses to disinformation by shifting the focus from reactive measures (legal acts and restriction-based regulations) towards a more proactive approach designed to strengthen national journalistic institutions and build robust media systems that seem to be the most immune to disinformation.