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Free Expression

Facts and their Discontents: A Research Agenda for Online Disinformation, Race, and Gender

Read the full report here.

Executive Summary

The January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol demonstrated how online disinformation can have severe offline consequences. For some time, the problems and possible impacts on democracy caused by online mis- and dis-information have dominated public policy discussions and thus research about these topics has developed rapidly in the last few years. Many disinformation campaigns are specifically designed with racist and/or misogynistic content, suggesting that disinformation is a tool used to promote ideologies like white supremacy and patriarchy.

Some civil society groups have already engaged in work to understand and address the impacts of mis- and disinformation on communities of color and across gender identity. Unfortunately, there is still not a lot of scholarship among many traditional research organizations (e.g., universities, think tanks, policy centers, etc.) that looks at patterns and impacts on people of color, women, LGBTQIA+ communities, and other voices that are less prominent in mainstream political discourse in the U.S.

In September 2020, CDT brought together an interdisciplinary and international group of experts to share and discuss research on this issue. This report presents some of those ideas and builds upon them to identify key research opportunities, including important unresolved questions around the intersections of online disinformation, race, and gender. This report also makes recommendations for how to tackle the related methodological and technical problems that researchers and others face in addressing these topics. This is important in generating research that will be directly relevant for developing policy solutions to address disinformation.

What We Know About Online Disinformation in General

  • Producers of misinformation are motivated by different incentives, including political ideology, money, and status/attention.
  • The methods and tools for spreading disinformation include social media, memes, and bots. Producers of disinformation also target journalists and influencers to amplify their false messages.
  • Disinformation is designed to meet the demand for compelling and evocative content. A key feature of disinformation is that it commands people’s limited attention and potential engagement, including their capacity to share content with others. Novel content that presents false information in new and unique ways is more likely to be shared.
  • People who share false information are more likely to be part of online polarized communities, which act as echo chambers and limit members’ exposure to alternative viewpoints that would counter disinformation.

What We Know About Online Disinformation, Race, and Gender

  • From the few studies that do exist, we can say that:
    • There were racially targeted disinformation campaigns aimed at suppressing votes from communities of color in the last three major elections in the U.S.
    • Tactics include the use of “digital blackface/brownface,” where disinformation operatives representing themselves as African American activists attracted more online engagement than any other identity category.
    • Spanish-speaking communities lack trusted sources that speak directly to them, and Latinx-oriented news outlets do not typically provide much information about American political candidates. This makes it easier for bad actors to spread disinformation unchallenged.
    • Content moderation practices are not nearly as advanced or robust for Spanish-language content, or content in any other language besides English.
    • Gendered disinformation campaigns promote the narrative that women are not good political leaders, and often aim to undermine women political leaders by spreading false information about their qualifications, experience, and intelligence, sometimes using sexualized imagery as part of their tactics. 
    • Women of color may be more likely to be the subject of disinformation when compared to others.

Major Research Gaps and Opportunities

  • More work is needed on the definition and measurement of disinformation. A focus on race, gender, and intersectionality can help address this, possibly by improving how we assess impact and harm.
  • We still lack evidence of the impact of disinformation on things like electoral outcomes, political opinions, and trust in political institutions, including where such disinformation is about or targeted at people based on race and gender.
  • We need to better understand the needs of communities where information verification is currently more difficult or where data voids may exist, such as in Spanish-speaking communities.
  • Understanding how disinformation leverages false narratives based on racism and/or misogyny may also improve efforts to counter disinformation, particularly as fact-checking alone may fall short. 
  • Key questions include: How can we better measure the degree and methods of coordination between different actors (organic or otherwise) who may be involved in a disinformation campaign? To what extent is coordination maintained through shared views of patriarchy and/or white supremacy?
  • How can research better capture and understand the fluidity between misinformation and disinformation, particularly if these patterns vary across and within groups based on race, gender, and other factors?

Why These Research Gaps Are Important

Disinformation campaigns often rely on exploiting existing narratives of discrimination (e.g., mysoginistic views) or narratives that stem from historical discrimination (e.g., views within some African American communities about the criminal justice system) to build credibility for the false information being shared. By not sufficiently examining this feature, we may be missing the point of disinformation campaigns, which are sometimes intentionally designed to exploit existing forms of discrimination and often target people based on race, gender identity, or both. 

The public policy stakes are too high to ignore the impacts on communities that together make up far more than half the U.S. population. Governments, industry, and civil society are understandably concerned and are hastily putting forward policy and legislative proposals, but without the comprehensive kinds of evidence that we call for, these solutions may fall short and could likely harm the same communities they aim to protect. We can start by building this body of evidence and taking advantage of the research opportunities described in this report. 

Read the full report here.

Read the accompanying press release here.

Read more from report authors Dhanaraj & DeVan here.

This was last updated February 17, 2021.