A Critical Evaluation of Disinformation Narratives in Media and Scholarship
Many of the stories that pundits, journalists, and scholars tell about disinformation begin with the 2016 US presidential election and focus on the role of social media platforms in spreading and generating false content. At their worst, these narratives imply that in the past, everyone shared the same sense of what was true and what was false; that this collective understanding was reinforced by legacy media like newspapers and TV news; and that “fake news,” disinformation, and inauthentic online behavior are responsible for a global far-right shift to populism exemplified by Brexit and the Trump presidency. None of these assumptions hold up to scrutiny.
Other research decontextualizes or depoliticizes disinformation, attempting to measure its spread or impact without recognizing how successful disinformation campaigns leverage long-held myths about identity and inequality. The role of actors other than social platforms is often ignored, particularly the historical role of mass media in spreading state propaganda or suppressing political expression. And the concept of “disinformation,” coined during the Cold War and often operationalized in ways specific to the West generally and the United States in particular, does not take into account vast social, cultural, and political differences in how people distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate forms of persuasion.
At CITAP, we take a critical approach to research on platforms, politics, and information which incorporates history, inequality, power, and culture. We believe that effective analysis of disinformation requires us as researchers:
To take a holistic approach to disinformation that is grounded in history, society, culture, and politics;
To center analyses of how social stratification and differentiation—including race and ethnicity, gender, class, and sexual identity—shape dynamics of disinformation;
To foreground questions of power, institutions, and economic, social, cultural, and technological structures as they shape disinformation; and
To have clear normative commitments to equality and justice.
To demonstrate how these principles play out in practice, we created a Critical Disinformation Studies syllabus as a provocation to disinformation researchers to rethink many of the assumptions of our nascent field. While the syllabus is fully-functional as is—it could be implemented in its current form for a graduate level seminar—it is also an essay in syllabus form. We draw from a very broad range of scholarship, much which falls outside of conventional studies of “disinformation,” to expand our understanding of what “counts” as disinformation.
We provide five case studies—crime and anti-Blackness; Japanese incarceration; Black liberation; the AIDS crisis; and the trope of the Welfare Queen—to demonstrate the historical complicity of media, the state, and the political establishment in strategically spreading inaccurate information to maintain structural inequality. We argue that disinformation is a key way in which whiteness in the United States has been reinforced and reproduced, in addition to heteronormativity and class privilege.
Each section includes recommended readings. Some sections include audiovisual material and primary sources. The intended audience for this syllabus is graduate students, faculty, and researchers interested in “disinformation” writ large. It can be adapted for undergraduate audiences as well.
While this is an interdisciplinary syllabus, its contributors are primarily from Communication and Media Studies. This syllabus is open-source and may be used by anyone for any scholarly or educational purpose without attribution. Please drop us a line if you have suggestions for readings or topics.
This syllabus focuses primarily on the United States, reflecting the state of the field. We recognize the limitations of this and encourage scholars to think through how false information is conceptualized across different political, social, and cultural contexts. Further, disinformation as it spreads in the U.S. is also connected to broader geopolitical and transnational dynamics.
The cases, examples, and sources included in this syllabus represent a range of approaches and perspectives. We recognize that citations, information, and knowledge production are political acts and inclusion does not necessarily entail endorsement of ideas and sources. Rather, we make this offering as a means to encourage ongoing critical and multi-faceted reflections of power and history in the study of disinformation.
Foregrounding history and context does not imply that contemporary social platforms are blameless. We support scholarly and activist efforts to hold large technology companies accountable. However, we wish to recognize that social platforms are but one part of a larger ecosystem, and to see state, politician, and legacy media companies equally taken to task for their roles in spreading disinformation.
Disinformation is false or misleading information that is intentionally spread for profit, to create harm, or to advance political or ideological goals. As Freelon & Wells show, disinformation was virtually absent from scholarship before 2016, when it became a primary issue of concern. This ignores a very long history of propaganda and persuasion tied to corporations, mass media, and state interests. Moreover, disinformation’s current form is rooted in the weakening of trust in democratic institutions like the press, the judiciary, and political parties, the political economy of mass and social media, and the increased influence of extremist, conspiratorial, and fringe communities. Given this disconnect, how do disinformation and related terms like “fake news” operate politically and culturally?
Disinformation studies often assumes that for much of the 20th century, members of the public shared a common understanding and sense of what was true, driven by mass media. This is not the case. Inspired by Mejia, Beckermann, and Sullivan, this section highlights the role of media in maintaining separate racial epistemologies and the strategic absence of the concerns of marginalized groups from public agendas. Indeed, the latter three readings explore how power, race, and imperialism contribute to the legitimizing of knowledge and truth, such as making and recording historical information.
“Disinformation” has origins in the Cold War, a loan word from the Russian “dezinformatsiya,” coined during the Stalin era. There are different cultural understandings of what is considered legitimate and illegitimate forms of persuasion, and “disinformation,” as it has been operationalized in the US since 2016, reflects a particular history and set of commitments. These readings lead us to reflect on what deliberately false information might look like in other contexts, and how analytic concepts developed in the US may limit our understanding and proposed solutions.
This case study postulates conceptualizing systemic, racist media coverage as strategic disinformation. In doing so, we connect current disinformation campaigns that draw on racist stereotypes to their antecedents, and de-emphasize the novelty of social media as a communicative medium. The “Central Park Five” is an egregious example of anti-Blackness in which racist mythologizing was used to justify sentencing children as adults and the massive increases in incarceration during the 1990s and 2000s.
During World War Two, the press served as a state “guard dog,” writing favorably about the government and dominant groups while emphasizing the (alleged) threat to national security presented by Japanese-Americans. Journalists used government and military sources while virtually ignoring Japanese-Americans, producing coverage that firmly supported the power structure. The US government strategically leveraged euphemistic language like “evacuation” and “non-aliens” to normalize incarceration rather than “forced removal” and “citizens,” and banned cameras in the camps to (unsuccessfully) prevent the dissemination of counterimages. As a result, incarceration is characterized by silence and secrecy, and rarely appears in popular texts about WW2.
The HIV/AIDS crisis illustrates how the suppression of information, as well as the spread of false information, can cause harm. It also provides a striking case study in the politics of knowledge production. Before reliable information about a phenomenon can be made available, it must be made, period, and a novel virus that manifests dramatically differently in distinct populations highlights the ways that pre-existing identities and power relations shape both processes. These readings explore the silence and stigma that federal and state governments and many legacy media institutions maintained around the “plague” for years in the United States. They document interventions by media activists who engaged in citizen science, community health projects, and public spectacle in order to save lives. Such activists set new media agendas and developed communications practices that were subsequently adopted by the US Surgeon General and globalized by international organizations. While the readings focus on the historical, the crisis and contestations that they capture remain timely. People with AIDS still die from a wide range of opportunistic infections; with luck and access to medical care, some also live for decades after an HIV diagnosis. According to UN estimates, in 2019, AIDS-related illnesses killed nearly 700,000 people.
Rooted in racial, classed, and gendered stereotypes that were both anti-Black and anti-poor, this trope stigmatized state distribution of public benefits that legitimated the reduction of welfare in later policy reform. Ronald Reagan was one of the first to use this term publicly and a central actor in its spread, demonstrating the long history of mainstream political actors creating and spreading disinformation to serve political interests and influence public discourse. By conceptualizing the “welfare queen” as an example of strategic disinformation, we can trace a throughline to more recent instances such as framing civil rights as “special rights,” constructing immigrants as “invaders” and “bad hombres,” and devising the specter of the “bathroom predator” to suppress transgender rights.
These readings explore the relationship between the state, anti-communism, 20th century Black liberation movements, and the news media. Specifically, these works complicate the role of the news media by positioning news organizations as both a corrective for anti-Black propaganda and a distributor of disinformation aimed at repressing Black activism. To repress Black social movements, state actors used terms like patriotic, anti-communist, and anti-American as rhetorical devices to maintain dominant narratives, which news media both resisted and furthered. This week points to how a lack of source diversity or the reliance on a singular account of events contributes to disinformation, particularly in the case of Black freedom movements.
Drawing on examples from political campaigns, ads, mainstream news, and hyper-partisan media, this set of readings examine narrative appeals to white identity (particularly white identity) that draw on “deep stories” (Polletta and Callahan, 2017) and “deep frames” (Phillips and Milner, 2021). As Alamo-Pastrana and Hoynes point out, the historical foundations of mainstream news media as white media rely upon racialized cultural authority. These drawings draw attention to how identity-based frameworks and the reproduction of racial inequality connect to partisan political identity.
Contemporary disinformation often pivots on racial stereotypes, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and other expressions of structural inequality. In other words, “old” racial and colonial tropes propagate on new media forms. From memes, hashtags, and other discursive tools of social media (Flores-Yeffal et al 2019), this set of readings highlight how racial histories and stereotypes operate within and across communities. For example, Freelon et al (2020) draw our attention to the role of race in the targeting and consumption of disinformation, connecting racial asymmetries to ideological ones.
Scholars and pundits often frame the primary impact of disinformation as diminishing public trust in institutions and leading individuals to make misinformed political decisions. However, in reality, the material impact of disinformation tends to fall most heavily on those from marginalized communities. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the profound ways that race, class, and gender inequalities shape health outcomes in the United States and beyond. So too has it inspired debates about how to account for and ameliorate such differences, given the absence of national standards for how demographic data about COVID patients should be recorded. In addition to such questions of knowledge production, readings in this unit focus on the factors that shape different communities’ trust, or (sometimes historically warranted) distrust, of official information about COVID. They also document how prominent political actors including former President Donald Trump and India’s Home Minister Amit Shah have mischaracterized the pandemic and its origins using racist and xenophobic tropes, demonstrating that these official disinformation campaigns have correlated with increased hostility and violence toward the groups they target﹘ namely, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States and Muslims in South and Southeast Asia.
Studies of disinformation often assume that it takes the form of “fake news” and that it originates from extremist or foreign powers. This week unpacks these assumptions using two related, but conceptually distinct, topics. The first is the role of the US as a colonial power in spreading disinformation. Saranillio’s book looks at US propaganda around Hawai’ian statehood, while Snow, Taylor, and Moustafa examine post-9/11 propaganda and its impact on Muslim communities. The second topic recognizes that disinformation takes many forms, including images, memes, videos, and trolling. Both cases acknowledge that strategic disinformation and its cousin “propaganda” are state and media industry practices with very long histories.
A simplistic view of “media literacy” is frequently presented by pundits and tech companies as a panacea to issues around “fake news” and disinformation. This view often also places the responsibility on individuals to become better consumers of media. Putting aside the fact that most people engaging with disinformation have not been in a classroom for years, many creators and disseminators of false information think of themselves as critical thinkers, while conspiracy theorists urge others to “do their own research.” How can we approach “media literacy” given the rest of this syllabus and widening epistemic differences?
Alice Marwick is a principal researcher at the Center for Information, Technology, & Public Life and an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Rachel Kuo is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Center for Information, Technology, & Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a founding member of the Center for Critical Race & Digital Studies, and a co-founder of the Asian American Feminist Collective.
Shanice Jones Cameron is a Graduate Research Fellow at the Center for Information, Technology & Public Life and a PhD student in the Department of Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Moira Weigel is a sociotechnical security researcher at the Data & Society Research Institute and the founding editor of Logic Magazine. In fall 2021, she will join the Communication department at Northeastern University as an Assistant Professor.
Marwick, A., Kuo, R., Cameron, S. J. & Weigel, M. (2021). Critical Disinformation Studies: A Syllabus. Center for Information, Technology, & Public Life (CITAP), University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. https://citap.unc.edu/critical-disinfo.