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Disinformation's Societal Impact: Britain, COVID and Beyond

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Original languageEnglish
Article numberDOI 10.30966/2018.RIGA.8.3.
Pages (from-to)89-140
Number of pages52
JournalDefence Strategic Communications
Volume8
Issue number1
Published3 Jul 2020

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Abstract

Disinformation is widely perceived as a profound threat to democracies. The result is an explosion of research on disinformation’s spread and the countermeasures taken against it. Most research has focused on false content spread online. Yet little research has demonstrated the societal impact of disinformation on areas such as trust and social cohesion. Policy responses are
mainly based on disinformation’s presumed impact rather than on its actual impact.

This paper advances disinformation research by asking how we can assess its impact more productively, and how research could better inform policy responses to disinformation. It uses examples from Britain between the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum campaign and the 2019 General Election, including some preliminary commentary on disinformation during the initial months of the
COVID-19 outbreak. First it considers the limitations of existing disinformation research, and how it could address impact more effectively. It then considers how policy responses have been self-limiting by framing the solution as simply reducing the general amount of disinformation online and/or ‘inoculating’ citizens. Instead we argue for an event or issue-specific focus. This culturally specific, sociological approach considers different forms of disinformation, the hybrid media systems through which they spread, and the complex offline and online social networks through which impact may occur.

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