By Riley Galligher and Samantha Tanner
In the digital age, the internet has reshaped the way we produce, share, and come to believe information. As the internet became a major center for information exchange, it also became a key target of disinformation. Information and communications technology continues to develop rapidly, enabling new capabilities for producing disinformation and new avenues for distributing disinformation. These new developments threaten to weaken our information environments further and erode public trust in institutions. Despite broad efforts from policymakers, companies, and civil society to understand and counter disinformation, disinformation policy remains an effort held back by inconsistencies and disorganization.
Over the next several weeks we will publish blog posts that serve as a guided tour of disinformation policy that introduces existing efforts and the continued challenges policymakers face in countering disinformation through policy. In this nine-part series, we will summarize the critical literature shaping the field, provide a comprehensive framework for analyzing disinformation policy, and discuss the motivations and implications of disinformation policy efforts. We aim to provide stakeholders across governments, academia, and the private sector with a consistent and valuable framework to analyze disinformation policy on a global scale. For the scope of this document, we focus on policy efforts made at the national level and governments’ essential partners, such as major media platforms, to counter the spread of disinformation globally.
Disinformation is a threat with technical, political, security, and policy dimensions, but this document focuses on disinformation as a policy problem because there has been an increased level of interest and effort on behalf of policymakers around the world to counter this problem on the national and international level. While numerous concerns drive these policymakers, two prominent examples highlight the critical nature of disinformation and the urgency with which national leaders are responding: the integrity of elections and the spread of disinformation related to COVID-19.
Bad actors understand that concentrated disinformation efforts during vulnerable electoral periods are extremely effective in undermining election integrity and public trust in information. In response to increasingly sophisticated election disinformation campaigns, many countries have prioritized this issue and adopted policies geared specifically toward combating election-related disinformation. This wave of election disinformation policy is groundbreaking in the overall progression of disinformation policy and exemplifies the power of awareness and collective effort against disinformation.
The second case is disinformation and policy related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Times of crisis are particularly vulnerable to disinformation because accurate information is not always readily available to the public. In the absence of trustworthy information during the early stages of the pandemic, COVID-19 disinformation circulated en masse across major social media platforms and news outlets on a global scale. Legislators and platforms acted quickly and collectively to pass legislation to curb the spread of COVID-19 disinformation. In the US, major social media platforms began labeling both potentially false health information and government-verified pandemic-related information to mitigate the impacts of disinformation. Many countries followed suit, with some enacting legislation to address COVID-19 disinformation. This surge of action could represent the most prominent expression of anti-disinformation policy so far.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the run-up to an extremely influential election year in 2024, world leaders now more than ever understand the harms of disinformation and have demonstrated a commitment to combating the effects of disinformation through policy.
As we will discuss in the document, information quality plays an increasingly explicit role in shaping public life. The public’s ability to trust the information they see is a necessary pillar of democracy. Modern technology, with its advantages and disadvantages, has presented new challenges. As we transition to digital information spaces, some fear that we are building information societies on a crumbling foundation of information integrity.
World leaders have expressed concern regarding the harms of disinformation and demonstrated a commitment to combat the effects of disinformation and defend our information environments. At the 2023 Summit for Democracy, President Biden placed combatting disinformation as a top priority for leaders from governments, civil society, and the private sector and took a significant step forward with the White House’s interagency Information Integrity Research and Development Working Group dedicated to mitigating the effects of information manipulation. A 2022 report for the UN secretary-general found that navigating dramatic changes in the media environment in a way that promotes human rights and international peace constitutes a “key challenge of our time.”
Disinformation policy is incredibly complex. A painful lack of consensus, consistency, and consolidation undermines society’s ability to respond to increasingly capable disinformation actors. This document seeks to shed some light on these complexities to better equip our policymakers, technology leaders, and the public in the fight against disinformation.
This document serves as a comprehensive introduction and guided tour of disinformation policy that provides a review of current literature, a framework for thinking about the relevant policies, and key points of discussion. Based on your familiarity with this policy issue area, we encourage you to navigate through the document at your discretion, focusing on the sections that you find most beneficial.
Our tour begins with a discussion of the many definitions applied to the concepts of disinformation/misinformation and the critical role these definitions play in policy responses. We then provide an overview of our three categories of disinformation policy and their compatibility with existing frameworks in the scholarly literature. We discuss these categories and provide various examples, exploring the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. We discuss some motivations for disinformation policy, such as securitization and soverignization. Additionally, we address the intersection between disinformation policy, fundamental rights, and the role of the state.
We hope this paper will serve various stakeholders as a guide to understanding disinformation policy and its challenges and provide a useful framework to analyze disinformation policy. We invite feedback on the various parts of this document to spark engaging discussion on these issues to aid in policy efforts to counter disinformation. Stay tuned for part two of this series which we will publish next week.
European Commission, 2018a. (2018) Tackling Online Disinformation: A European Approach (No. COM(2018) 236). ↑
Yadav, Kamya, Ulaş Erdoğdu, Samikshya Siwakoti, Jacob N. Shapiro, and Alicia Wanless. “Countries Have More Than 100 Laws on the Books to Combat Misinformation. How Well Do They Work.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 77, no. 3 (2021): 124–28. ↑
McKay, S., & Tenove, C. (2021). Disinformation as a Threat to Deliberative Democracy. Political Research Quarterly, 74(3), 703-717. https://doi.org/10.1177/1065912920938143 ↑
White House, FactSheet: The Biden-Harris Administration is Taking Action to Restore and Strengthen American Democracy https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/12/08/fact-sheet-the-biden-harris-administration-is-taking-action-to-restore-and-strengthen-american-democracy/ ↑
United Nations General Assembly. “Countering disinformation for the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms: Report of the Secretary-General.” A/77/287. New York: United Nations, 2022, p. 3. ↑