what is disinformation

What is disinformation, why it spreads, and how to stop it

What is disinformation? Disinformation is false or misleading information, created to influence people. It can take many different forms and existed well before the internet. Every country struggles with the spread of disinformation online, whether you live in a functioning democracy or under an authoritarian regime. It often surrounds divisive political subjects, such as migration, vaccination, or policies on gender, sexuality, race, religion, and more. 

As communications moved online, so did disinformation. The advertising business models of large online platforms, which exploit our personal data in order to profit from it, have contributed to the rapid spread of disinformation. During the global pandemic, we have witnessed how disinformation, often manufactured and spread by politicians and other public figures, can incite violence and discrimination against marginalised groups. Disinformation has been linked to low vaccination rates, the silencing of marginalised voices, and the undermining of the public’s trust in journalism. As UN Special Rapporteur Irene Khan writes, “Essentially, disinformation is a modern way in the digital era of making money by purposefully spreading lies.”


Why does disinformation spread online?

While disinformation is a complex societal issue that did not start with online platforms like Meta (Facebook) or TikTok, it is the business models of these platforms that has led to the development and deployment of technical architecture and algorithms operating with the scale and power to shape public discourse en masse. That discourse is shaped to maximise profits.

Here is how it works. To generate profits, online platforms must drive and constantly increase engagement on their sites. To do so, they use opaque, automated decision-making to curate the content you see online. The end result is personalised news feeds or search results and targeted ads. This personalisation relies on intrusive tracking of your behaviours online. In other words, the platforms harvest your personal data and track what you do online to deliver “engaging” content, including sensational content and disinformation. The platforms both amplify this often divisive and harmful content and enable its targeting and weaponisation against the users. 

This exploitation and manipulation of our data for profit is threatening both human rights and democracies worldwide, as Meta whistleblower Frances Haugen highlighted in her testimony to lawmakers in the US and EU. She described in detail how content ranking via content recommender systems leads to the spread of disinformation and hate speech on Meta’s Facebook platform.

How to address disinformation? Protect human rights first

Access Now has been engaged in analysing regulatory responses to the spread of disinformation online, pointing out how even well-intended proposals to combat concrete categories of online content can lead to human rights abuse. 

In December 2021, we published a joint report with Liberty and EDRi, Informing the Disinfo Debate: A Policy Guide for Protecting Human Rights. This report is a follow-up to its 2018 predecessor, Informing the “Disinformation” Debate. The 2018 report was among the first by civil society organisations to identify platforms’ problematic business models as a fundamental factor behind the online manipulation of people’s economic and political choices. There is now a growing consensus that regulatory approaches must address the business model as a foundational matter, as a large number of policy analyses argue

In the 2021 report, we unpack the main methods of manipulation that platforms engage in that harm fundamental rights. These methods stem directly from the platforms’ business models and have severe impact on the absolute freedom to form an opinion and freedom of thought. They are: 

  1. Surveillance-based advertisement, including political advertising; and
  2. Amplification of disinformation online via content recommender systems and personalisation of news content. 

We provide a set of policy recommendations addressed to lawmakers in the European Union. However, the objective and focus of these recommendations can be adapted to other regions. They center on the following issues:

  1. How to effectively mitigate the fundamental rights risks that result from the manipulative methods large online platforms deploy, which exploit people’s vulnerabilities and their sensitive data; and 
  2. How to combat disinformation in a manner that is fully compliant with fundamental rights standards.

Our concrete recommendations include a call for lawmakers to phase out behavioural advertising, provide greater control and transparency to people on content moderation and algorithmic decision-making, and strengthen control of public funds that are currently misused to fuel state propaganda online.

Read the full report here.