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Can Digital Disinformation Be Disarmed?

With its growing impact on real-world events, online disinformation is not a problem that any society can afford to ignore. But because the problem touches on such a wide range of policy issues, economic sectors, and fundamental democratic principles, it will not be solved with just one policy or approach.

STANFORD – The storming of the US Capitol on January 6 imbued longstanding concerns about digital disinformation with a new sense of urgency, because it showed just how easily online engagement can lead to offline action. It didn’t take long to reach this point. Digital disinformation first entered public consciousness with the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump’s election as US president. And yet, as the Capitol insurrection showed, the overall disinformation landscape of the last few years differs notably from that in 2016.

While foreign adversaries, bots, and fake accounts have dominated the dialogue about disinformation since 2016, over the last year, domestic influencers – real people with authenticated identities – have taken over. The narratives that were promoted also differed, with the coronavirus pandemic taking center stage. As a result, the scope of disinformation went global.

In the United States, false pandemic narratives vied with stories that sought to undermine confidence in the presidential election. Some sought to organize and incite violence.