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.

Keywords—disinformation, trust, social cohesion, UK, election, Brexit, strategic communication, strategic communications, Britain, COVID-19, coronavirus

About the Authors

Dr Thomas Colley is a Teaching Fellow in War Studies at King’s College London and a Fellow of the King’s Centre for Strategic Communications. His research examines propaganda, strategic communications and war.

Francesca Granelli is a Teaching Fellow for the Strategic Communications MA at King’s College London, where her research focuses on trust. Her latest book is Trust, Politics and Revolution: A European History.

Jente Althuis is a PhD candidate at the King’s Centre for Strategic Communications, in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. She specialises in the strategic communications of space and urban conflict.

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