DISINFORMATIONWhat Research Reveals About Disinformation and How to Address It

Published 4 May 2022

Stanford scholars from across the social sciences are studying the threats disinformation poses to democracy. Here is some of their research.

Over the past decade, the spread of disinformation online has become a problem facing the U.S. and the world. Increasingly, domestic and foreign adversaries have used it as a way to unleash chaos on democratic processes, upend democratic norms and weaken confidence in public institutions, according to Stanford scholars.

While propaganda and disinformation have long been used by malign actors to intentionally mislead and manipulate the public, disinformation online can spread fast and far across networks anonymously, cheaply and efficiently, making it a challenging problem to address. The internet and social media platforms have become “weaponized” to purposefully confuse, agitate and divide civil society, said Eileen Donahoe, executive director of Stanford’s Global Digital Policy Incubator and former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council.

“Democratic governments are now seized with the fact that digital information platforms have been exploited by malign actors to spread propaganda and disinformation, wreaking havoc on democratic elections and eroding trust in the digital information realm,” said Donahoe in an online commentary published by the Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center.

Donahoe and Stanford scholars from across the social sciences are studying the threats disinformation poses to democracy and also other areas of public and private life, such as health and education. In many instances, researchers are providing specific recommendations for what governments, digital platforms and the public can do to counter its deleterious effects.

Here are some of those findings and recommendations, as well as insight into the role disinformation played during the global pandemic and more recently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

How Disinformation Can Hinder Democracy
Understanding how disinformation online has endangered democracy and democratic norms is incredibly nuanced. When considering the dynamics at play, it is important to not conflate disinformation and the internet communication environment with existing issues it is entangled in (and at times, exploits), such as rising populism and polarization, said Stanford legal scholar and co-director of the Cyber Policy Center Nathaniel Persily in a 2019 report for the Kofi Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age.

Rather, it is important to understand what conditions lead to disinformation fomenting in these online spaces.

“The challenge for anybody analyzing the particular stresses that the new technologies and platforms pose for democracies is to isolate the unique features of this new form of communication that threaten the core components of elections, campaigns and democratic decisionmaking,” Persily said.

Persily, and other Stanford scholars, have been examining what makes disinformation unique in the digital age and the tactics foreign and domestic actors use to discredit and cause harm through information environments, as well as what can be done about it.