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.
How to spot and stop the spread of disinformation
Stanford researchers at the Graduate School of Education have found that many high school students are unable to evaluate the credibility of information they read on the internet – a finding they describe as “troubling.”
“Reliable information is to civic health what proper sanitation and potable water are to public health. A polluted information supply imperils our nation’s civic health,” said Sam Wineburg, the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education, Emeritus, and founder of the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG), in a report he co-authored with SHEG director Joel Breakstone, PhD ’13, and director of assessment Mark Smith, PhD ’14.
Their research reveals just how unprepared high school students are to discern fact from fiction. In a survey with a national sample of high school students, they found that two-thirds of students were unable to distinguish between news stories and ads (despite being labeled “Sponsored Content”) and 52% of students believed a grainy video that claimed to show ballot stuffing in the 2016 Democratic primaries constituted “strong evidence” of voter fraud in the U.S when in actuality the video was filmed in Russia.
“Education moves slowly. Technology doesn’t. If we don’t act with urgency, our students’ ability to engage in civic life will be the casualty,” Wineburg and his colleagues wrote.
Wineburg and his colleagues have created a free curriculum called Civic Online Reasoning for educators to teach students the skills they need to evaluate information online. The scholars found that a small intervention can lead to an outsized impact on students’ ability to judge the credibility of digital content.
Here is some of that research and other Stanford scholarship that identifies ways to counter the spread of fake news and tips on how to spot and stop it.
How disinformation hurts health & well being
Throughout the global pandemic, public health organizations and social media platforms have been trying to tackle problems of disinformation as it relates to COVID-19, from causes to treatment.
Most recently, Stanford researchers have been examining disinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine.
As disinformation scholar Renee DiResta points out, disinformation about vaccines is practically as old as the vaccine itself: Shortly after Edward Jenner created the vaccine in 1796 to protect people against smallpox, opposition to this new life-saving technology proliferated.
Today, online communities foment fears by offering digital spaces for disinformation to flourish in largely echo chambers where anti-vaccination activists, unrestrained by editorial gatekeepers, have been able to broadcast their claims, unchecked. Despite social media platforms developing policies against vaccine-related disinformation, anti-vaccination activists have become savvy at avoiding accountability for the misleading and pseudoscientific claims they spout.
“There are very real-world impacts to vaccine hesitancy at this moment in time,” said DiResta, the technical research manager at Stanford Internet Observatory. “Myths, rumors and disinformation contribute to vaccine hesitancy, and thinking about our information environment is part of understanding the public health quandary that we find ourselves in.”
DiResta and her team have put together specific recommendations on how to stop disinformation about the vaccine from spreading. Here is some of that work, as well as other research scholars have done, to tackle disinformation as it relates to public health and well-being.