Maybe it's time for disinformation studies (at least in its current form) to fade away - or become something new
On May 25th 2022, media and communication scholars met at Sciences Po in Paris for a pre-conference before the annual conference of the International Communication Association (ICA). The title of the pre-conference was a question whose salience has only increased in the past five years: “What comes after disinformation studies?” The implication is that the prominent subfield of disinformation studies is ripe for a rethinking. While the field may indeed be “too big to fail,” as Chico Q. Camargo and Felix Simon put it recently, the conference left open the question of whether it ought to fail.
According to many attendees—and now contributors to this volume—perhaps it should, at least in its current form.
The pre-conference outlined many scholarly concerns over “the disinformation narrative,” which portrays information ecosystems, democracy, and disinformation through a de-politicized view of politics. The pre-conference aimed at reframing the field of disinformation studies by identifying “the importance of historical, contextual, and geopolitical approaches” for understanding the relationships between truth, power, and politics.
The articles we collect here are versions of the papers presented at the Paris event. In the pages that follow, we try to capture both the spirit and tenor of what attendees agreed was a remarkable (and unusual) day of a freewheeling but deeply committed conversation.
Before thinking about what comes after disinformation studies, let’s first quickly rewind and consider the growth of the field over the last few years. The “Brexit” referendum in the U.K. in 2015 and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president in 2016 made disinformation a hot topic of research and top policy concern. In response, a wave of foundation funding prompted social scientists to open research centers and think tanks to design new programs and fellowships. Governments created independent agencies and new rules, and legislatures developed new policies and regulations to mitigate the supposed threat. Together, all of these institutions, along with the organizers and presenters at the conference, were mobilized by a deep concern about the impact of disinformation on democracy.
To many, perhaps the most daunting consequence of disinformation was the election of Donald Trump, which presented a fundamental threat to the global order. The role of disinformation served as one particularly compelling justification for the Democrats’ failure to win the 2016 election. Many academics portrayed Trump’s victory, which followed a campaign in which there was evidence of Russian interference and a substantial disinformation campaign targeting his opponent, as the result of a flawed information system that gives poor information to citizens and prevents them from making rational decisions. For stunned researchers (and many media pundits and Democratic Party figures on the left), flawed information could be the only explanation. Otherwise, why would American citizens have elected an authoritarian charlatan like Donald Trump?
Under this “rational model,” disinformation is a fundamental threat to democracy itself, since it challenges the epistemological basis of democratic political systems. In this story we tell ourselves about the relationship between disinformation and democracy, a sound democracy involves citizens making rational decisions based on quality information. These researchers wonder: What happens when disinformation circulates online? How can citizens make up their minds on political issues if the information on which they base their arguments is false?
Often, those who assert the rational model hearken back to mid-twentieth-century norms and assumptions about how the information ecosystem should work. Often, there are implicit, if not explicit, claims that truth used to surround us: in the press, in government communications, and on television. But in the social media age, with gatekeepers displaced, we’ve lost the factual basis of public life, and much of its cohesion. And that is scary to many researchers, because how else can we ensure rational politics? How could we ever live in a world in which people disagree about the fundamentals of what happens around them?
Considering the limits of the rational model, also called the informational approach, is the object of this special issue of the Bulletin of Technology and Public Life. The papers that form this issue of conference proceedings fall into several categories, as outlined below.
Several authors in this issue draw attention to opportunities to refocus disinformation studies using alternative research paradigms. In "The Power of News Style and the Limits of Technology," Reece Peck argues that the best way to advance a fact-based, democratic form of journalism is by decentering "infocentric" approaches to disinformation to consider the ways stylistic patterns cut across news, politics, and entertainment. Katerina Tsetsura, in “The Brave New World? of Disinformation Research,” coins the concept of Mediated Distraction in Shared Spaces (MDiSS). She argues that this concept, rooted in strategic communication research, indicates the value of classic rhetorical approaches for understanding the contemporary disinformation landscape. “Apocalypse Not,” by Shaden Shabayek, explores the value ignorance studies adds to disinformation studies by de-centering attention on truthfulness and the media and re-centering attention on the study of actors. “Where the Victor/Victim Bleeds,” by Roderic Crooks and Bryan Truitt, recommends that disinformation studies shift away from disinformation as a starting point toward theorizing through the lens of state violence. This shift can allow the field to begin to reckon with the long histories of oppression of minoritized people and the unequal social terrain produced by multiple forms of interlocking oppression. Jen Schradie, finally, argues that understanding online disinformation requires attention to the societal 3 Cs: class, community, and contexts in “Don’t Look Up.”
Not everyone sees disinformation as equally problematic. As these scholars point out, the organizations in the United States that undertook this fight are predominantly well-endowed institutions with a strong stake in the existing social and political order: philanthropies such as the Ford Foundation and Knight Foundation, research centers at Stanford and Harvard, and think tanks such as the Aspen Institute and the Atlantic Council. These institutions all share a generally centrist view of the world. More to the point, these and similar institutions actually benefit from this story about disinformation. The rational model approach to disinformation shores up grant-making programs focused on epistemological concerns and knowledge-producing institutions such as journalism, even as grant dollars flow to those scientists who utilize new tools to study the problem at scale yet in highly reductive ways. In Harper’s, journalist Joe Bernstein referred to a similar constellation of actors as “Big Disinfo.” This tells a lot about what is at stake in the way these organizations conceptualize the problem of disinformation.
This construction of disinformation has led to specific metaphors that are largely agreed upon and used in the field. These are, for example, the ‘information warfare’ or the ‘infodemic’ narratives. The issue with these narratives, according to many of the thinkers in this volume, is that they often frame large parts of the population as irrational beings that can be easily manipulated. This view leads to political constructions where with the right information people would make the right political choices (already W. E. B. Du Bois pointed to the limits of an information model of curing racism in the 1910–1920s.) In the process, these views construct politics as something solvable through information and posits a ‘right’ set of political choices based on ideal informational conditions—and, of course in the U.S., this is the politics of the left.
A second major argument advanced in this special issue is that the current consensus on disinformation studies frames the phenomenon as primarily Western. This does not mean that disinformation researchers haven’t looked at disinformation operations taking place in other parts of the world; there is extensive research on disinformation in Brazil, Nigeria, Myanmar, and elsewhere. However, when looking at disinformation in other parts of the world, researchers frame it in terms that make sense for Western policy-makers and researchers. “Authoritarian Neoliberal Statecraft and the Political Economy of Mis/Disinformation,” by Sean Phelan and Nguyễn Yến Khanh, articulates how the context of Vietnam differs from Western liberal democracies in terms of mis- and disinformation. They argue for the continued importance of de-Westernizing media and communication studies to better account for the future of disinformation studies. And in “Factforward,” Bruce Mutsvairo and his co-authors ground their discussion of disinformation in interviews with experts in Mali, the Sahel, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Senegal. These interviews show that Africa-specific dynamics of democratization, state control, and mobility shape the creation of a difficult information disorder and link pervasive social media usage with growing ethnic, religious, and political tensions in many African countries.
Approaching disinformation through a Western-centric lens is problematic. In many places where liberal democracy is not the prevailing political system, the notion of disinformation itself is opaque. When the press works hand in hand with private companies or governments to share carefully narrated news, the Western notion of disinformation loses much of its substance. Meanwhile, the global nature of platforms indirectly exports the concerns over disinformation to other parts of the world, shaping the way we speak of truths and lies in contexts far removed from the particular cluster of concerns in the United States and Europe.
At the same time, much Western research constructs information systems in universalizing ways. Researchers and Western social media platforms portray information ecosystems everywhere as free information markets in which citizens navigate content as rational agents to make informed judgments. This prevents research from considering how the notions of truths and falsehoods are perceived differently in other political systems, how they might be weaponized differently, and how they impact people.
A number of the papers presented in Paris, and conversations among the attendees, centered on how European and American colonial histories helped create the contextual factors that shape contemporary mis- and disinformation. While race often appears as an American problem to white European scholars, scholars such as Paula Chakravartty and Denise Ferreira da Silva remind us of the ways Western powers have long created racial and ethnic distinctions in the service of geographic and economic expansion on a global scale. Discussions of mis- and disinformation in countries such as India, Vietnam, Argentina, Brazil, and Zimbabwe, for instance, must proceed from analysis of social differentiation on the basis of categories in part constituted and maintained by Western powers. In Paris, scholars urged us to think about the West's relations to the rest of the globe, including the forms of differentiation these powers introduced in pursuit of capital, without centering the perspectives of Western scholars.
This raises other questions about how researchers and platforms themselves participate in shaping the relationship between the West and other parts of the world. The example of the war in Ukraine is enlightening: some countries outside the West have had trouble adhering to the U.S. condemnation of Russia’s information tactics as disinformation. Protesting against the disinformation narrative is also a form of protest against the U.S. in countries that have had to live with the West’s own expansion strategies—including the use of disinformation and propaganda to achieve its political ends, including Western media narratives around military operations such as the invasion of Iraq.
The second lesson is therefore similar to the first one but at a different scale: moving the field of disinformation studies forward requires looking at disinformation from outside the West, which often means considering what notions of true and false are perceived differently in political systems that are not liberal democracies.
Both previous points bring to the fore perhaps the most important critique of disinformation studies. When the underlying assumption is that disinformation is a threat to democracy, what is ‘democracy’? Some of the most provocative and thought-provoking papers in this special issue attack this question, including:
“Centering Identity and Morality in Disinformation Studies,” by Kirsten Eddy;
“What Is Disinformation to Democracy?” by A.J. Bauer and Anthony Nadler;
"Thinking for Themselves” by Cindy Ma; and
“From Disinformation to Speculation” by Fenwick McKelvey, Ganaele Langlois, and Greg Elmer.
Depicting democracy as a process of individual, rational evaluations of self-interest leads to seeing politics in exceptionally narrow ways. This view posits that citizens and politicians make decisions using information infrastructures which most often work, but in recent years sometimes fail. According to this view, Facebook introduces deficiencies into the larger machinery of the public sphere that has made it possible for personalities such as Trump to get to power.
This vision merges technology and politics so much that, when offering solutions, it is difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate technology from politics. Indeed, political problems become problems of media and technology. As a result, reformers and policymakers evacuate politics as they focus on narrowly technical and technocratic solutions to try and save democracy from disinformation. The solutions that emerge from this way of thinking are, in the end, often misguided. Will moderating disinformation on Twitter or Facebook make racism, extremism, discontent, economic precarity, or anger go away? Hardly. At best, these are the hopeful expectations of some of the disinformation narrative’s proponents. At worst, researchers and civil society advocates spend much of their time focused on the wrong thing, and might even make matters worse. For example, banning political ads might sound like a great way to prevent disinformation, until we balance that against the ways civil society groups use ads to mobilize Black voters.
More broadly, however, conflicts are an integral part of democracy. Yet the Western fight against disinformation can easily be interpreted as an enterprise to make conflicts disappear—or at the very least one that does not recognize that conflicts exist. What do researchers expect to happen if the big information machinery is fixed and disinformation is kept to a minimum? The results will likely prove to be disappointing if they are evaluated on the ability to ease tensions and prevent antagonism.
The third lesson, then, is to think about how to live in a world with disinformation. Historical approaches to disinformation show that falsehoods have always been a part of democracy. So they will most likely not go away. As the scholars in this issue argue and model, we need to start focusing again on politics, group conflicts, inequality, and race and ethnicity—and less on the ‘information ecosystem.’ This lesson is more than theoretical. This lesson asks us to care more about politics and less about technology. It involves depicting the public sphere as something other than a vast media machinery with parts that can be tweaked to arrive at what researchers believe are the optimal outcomes.
The arguments above could be interpreted as an unconcern with truth in public debates, or that governments, universities, and foundations should stand down in their efforts to combat disinformation. How productive are these critiques when American citizens are being targeted with false information to prevent them from voting, particularly Black people, who are historically disenfranchised? When fake massacres are being simulated by Russian militaries to tarnish the reputation of the French army in Mali? How useful are these ideas to the activists, NGOs, policy-makers, and state organizations who work to protect the rights and security of their fellow citizens?
A lot of credit must be given to those who have worked on tackling disinformation. Platforms have been prompted to make significant changes to their policies and enforcement that have a real impact at scale. A network of research institutions and civil society organizations is more prepared to confront disinformation, particularly at key moments such as during elections. And in Europe, the Digital Services Act opens tech platforms to public scrutiny for illegal as well as problematic content.
Despite all of these gains, the researchers presented here—and the conversations in Paris—make it clear that such efforts will only have limited effects. The problem is twofold. First, disinformation studies has generally lacked analyses of power and interest. As such, the field has failed to analyze how disinformation is often a tool of powerful groups pursuing their interests. In this, it has proceeded with the assumption that people want good information. In contrast, the critical voices in Paris put forward an alternative model where identity and interest comes first.
Second, scholars in Paris and in this volume advance the idea that the real problem underlying informational politics in many countries are powerful groups seeking to hold on to their political, social, economic, and cultural advantages in the face of increasingly powerful challenges to that power. As Rachel Kuo pointed out in the pre-conference opening remarks, “we can't fact check our way out of global regimes of white supremacy and racial hierarchies in their myriad of forms.”
If there was any consensus to emerge in Paris it is this: fact-checking our way out of politics will not work. Technical solutions to political problems are bound to fail. Historical, structural, and political inequality—and especially race, ethnicity, and social difference—needs to be at the forefront of our understanding of politics and, indeed, disinformation. The challenge for researchers, and our field broadly, is to engage in politics by generating ideas and crafting narratives that make people want to live in a more just world, not just a more truthful one.
This issue is edited by Alice Marwick, Shannon McGregor, and Elaine Schnabel. It is based on the ICA pre-conference organized by Chris Anderson, Meredith Clark, Daniel Kreiss, Rachel Kuo, and Sylvain Parasie and hosted at the médialab at Sciences Po.