In the course of 2024, an estimated four billion people—half the world’s population—will go to the polls in eighty-three elections. Leading experts in global security have warned that disinformation is a major threat to the world’s stability in 2024, including in the United States, where most Republicans believe that Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 Presidential election was illegitimate. But fighting disinformation is a fraught endeavor. In some instances, researchers say, efforts to do so have hurt more than they have helped.
The modern concept of disinformation, or dezinformatsiya, was born in the Soviet Union, to describe false or misleading information used to confuse and undermine adversaries. Recently, with the advent of new technologies, its meaning has evolved. In a 2017 paper, the researchers Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan concluded that social technology was producing “information pollution” on a global scale and proposed a taxonomy of online toxins. As the authors defined it, “misinformation” is false but shared with no ill intent. “Disinformation” is false and knowingly shared to cause harm. “Mal-information” is true information shared with the intention to cause harm. The report was accompanied by a Venn diagram of the three categories, which was widely shared among researchers and policymakers, spreading awareness of the threat. Specialized think tanks, nonprofits, and academic conferences emerged to combat disinformation and its variants. Media organizations began to cover the phenomenon extensively, creating a disinformation beat.
By 2022, former President Barack Obama—who had used social media to mobilize supporters during his 2008 campaign and maintained a largely warm relationship with Silicon Valley during his Presidency—had begun to speak out about the dangers of disinformation, and to call for greater government regulation of the information space. “Solving the disinformation problem won’t cure all that ails our democracies or tears at the fabric of our world, but it can help tamp down divisions and let us rebuild the trust and solidarity needed to make our democracy stronger,” Obama said, in an April, 2022, speech at Stanford University.
The Biden Administration, concerned about foreign efforts to influence the 2022 midterm elections and the way in which online rumors had undermined the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, began to use the term more regularly and to expand efforts to “combat” or “counter” disinformation, including the creation of the Disinformation Governance Board, to be led by Nina Jankowicz, an expert on both online harassment and Russian information operations. Republicans criticized the board as a vehicle to censor their speech, fuelling a wave of misogynistic online attacks on Jankowicz. (In May, 2022, Jankowicz resigned. Three months later, the board was disbanded.) In Congress, the Trump ally and enabler Jim Jordan cast efforts to fight disinformation as a plot to impose censorship, seizing on a handful of examples of alleged government overreach and spinning them into evidence of vast conspiracy. Disinformation researchers, universities, and others have received letters from Jordan asking them to provide information or preserve their records, including e-mail correspondence, as part of a congressional investigation that Jordan is leading. “Certain third parties, including organizations like yours, may have played a role in this censorship regime by advising on so-called ‘misinformation,’ ” one letter obtained last year by ProPublica read.
In the international sphere, there were other challenges. The growing consensus that fighting disinformation is a legitimate government function provided an excuse for autocratic regimes around the world to crack down on critical speech. A 2023 study from the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) found that, during the previous decade, a hundred and five misinformation laws were enacted or amended in seventy-eight countries. Using these new powers, some governments acted to restrict “misleading” or “false” information and jailed several dozen journalists. “We have to acknowledge that the rhetoric and the efforts to combat mis- and disinformation are giving cover for authoritarian governments to stifle freedom of expression and a free press,” Nicholas Benequista, the senior director of CIMA, told me.
The weaponization of the term “disinformation” has sparked a debate among researchers and scholars. In part, it has been driven by a sprawling lawsuit, Murthy v. Missouri, which is now before the Supreme Court. In the suit, the Biden Administration is alleged to have violated the First Amendment by pressuring social-media companies to suppress certain content, particularly related to public health. “One of the biggest mistakes was labelling content as misinformation when it wasn’t. It was unsettled science,” a leading academic said, referring to calls to take down social-media posts suggesting that the coronavirus was the result of a lab leak or that mask wearing might provide only limited protection against infection. The researcher, who is facing a congressional investigation and asked not to be identified, acknowledged, “We can’t have the kind of nuanced conversation that we should have, because right now it looks like you’re kind of capitulating to Jim Jordan.”
There’s an additional risk in attributing the complex social forces stoking polarization and conflict around the world to disinformation, according to Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. He argues that ascribing political outcomes to foreign information operations without unassailable evidence enhances the goals of disruptive actors. “We should remember the incentive of the people involved,” Nielsen pointed out. “If you are a former K.G.B. officer sitting in some office building in the outskirts of St. Petersburg trolling people for a living, it would be wonderful if your boss thought that what you did was hugely influential and really accomplishing every goal of the Russian state.”
Even U.S. government officials who have been involved in the fight against disinformation have soured on the concept. Richard Stengel, a former top editor at Time magazine, served as Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs during the Obama Administration. Part of his job was to respond to the threats of extremist content and anti-U.S. propaganda; he eventually came to believe that this was not the role of the government. “The problem of countering disinformation, particularly by the government, is that it’s often counterproductive,” he said. “I became a skeptic about whether governments should ever be in the business of actively countering disinformation by trying to rebut it.”
If disinformation is a threat to the world’s stability, how can scholars, journalists, and others fight it without provoking a backlash? One obvious solution is to limit the use of the term. Emily Bell, who directs the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University (where I was a fellow in 2022), told me, “As a researcher and media commentator who writes about this stuff occasionally, the discomfort with using the term ‘disinformation’ is really because I do feel that often you are talking about something else.”
“If it’s propaganda, then understand what propaganda is and describe it as such,” Bell continued. “If it’s a scam campaign run by somebody grifting dollars from you, then describe it as that. If it’s a political-advertising campaign, then describe it.” Journalists and others should also be aware that those who employ disinformation strategies are incentivized to exaggerate the impact of their actions. And they should avoid any framing that empowers autocratic regimes that are cracking down on critical speech under the guise of fighting disinformation.
In the United States, following these practices will not untangle the enigma of how to cover the 2024 Trump campaign and its efforts to stoke divisions. But attributing Trump’s rise and enduring appeal simply to disinformation is clearly ineffective—because it is imprecise and bolsters Trump’s own claims about “fake news,” and also because it implies that Trump’s supporters are rubes who fail to perceive their own interests. That’s an élitist framework that further alienates an audience that news outlets ultimately need to reach. This is the disinformation trap that journalists must avoid. ♦