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CDT Research, Free Expression

From Our Fellows: Future Directions & Possibilities for Critical Disinformation Studies

By Rachel Kuo, Postdoctoral Researcher, UNC Chapel Hill, and CDT Non-Residential Fellow

Disclaimer: The views expressed by CDT’s Non-Resident Fellows and any coauthors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policy, position, or views of CDT. 

Widespread concern about disinformation, ‘fake news’, and white supremacy amongst politicians, journalists, and scholars emerged prominently during the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections. Given continued racial violence and the ongoing global resurgence of far-right ethno-nationalism, contemporary disinformation as it spreads across online platforms connects to longer-standing systems of inequality. Historically, we have seen the legitimization of different narrative forms and discursive frames to justify U.S. military occupation, mass incarceration, and the suppression of liberation movements. By expanding what “counts” as disinformation, studies can interrogate how systems of power are reinforced and reproduced. 

Critical Information Studies: A Syllabus

Alongside Alice Marwick, Shanice Jones Cameron, and Moira Weigel and through the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life (CITAP) at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, we created a syllabus for Critical Disinformation Studies to interrogate the relationship between information and how systems of power are reinforced and reproduced. The syllabus grounds research on platforms, politics, and information in racial and imperial histories, and also demonstrates the complicity of media institutions and states in the strategic spread of disinformation to reproduce and reinforce hierarchies. 

You can download the syllabus here

The interdisciplinary syllabus is an initial offering “to encourage ongoing critical and multi-faceted reflections of power and history in the study of disinformation” by connecting fields and disciplines, such as critical ethnic studies, history, queer studies, and feminist studies. We use different case studies to take a holistic approach to disinformation, and center analyses of social difference and institutional power in shaping unequal dynamics embedded in information. 

For example, Dean Saranillio’s Unsustainable Empire: Alternative Histories of Hawai‘i Statehood examines how state-sanctioned propaganda commissions framed discourses of settler colonial statecraft and expansion. Chapter 4, on the ideologies over Hawai’i and U.S. statehood during the Cold War, begins with the history of how public relations expert Edward L. Bernays argued for Hawai’i to be made into a U.S. state in order to promote multiculturalism and disprove communist charges of U.S. racism and colonialism. Or, Moustafa Bayoumi’s discussion of how Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11 — shaped by the popularization of War on Terror media narratives and policies — has led to expanded targeted policing, incarceration, and deportation of Arabs and Muslims. Racialized assumptions and cultures of fear and suspicion undergird policies such as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). 

Beginning our approach to disinformation through frameworks of race and empire offers alternative approaches to how we understand the relationship between violence and information.

We can also see ways that drawing on forms of knowledge production emerging from movements (including women of color feminisms and Black radicalism) challenge and resist dominant narratives and ideologies. For example, Jih Fei-Cheng’s essay in AIDS and the Distribution of Crises looks to histories of queer and trans people of color organizing as a roadmap to countering crises facilitating the AIDS pandemic, which has often been mistaken as a disease only impacting white, gay men. This perception not only left people of color and women out of drug trials and interventions, but later created further categories of stigmatization, such as immigration restriction and detention, including the uses of Guantanamo Bay as a detention camp for HIV+ Haitian refugees. Cheng’s essay points us to alternative information networks that center the people most impacted by structural violence. Or, Cathy Cohen’s prominent essay, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens,” draws our attention to the intertwined politics of race and sexuality to reimagine radical politics. The anti-poor and anti-Black “welfare queen” trope has been used to strip down welfare benefits primarily by demonizing poor, young women of color. Cohen points out how normalized myths surrounding acceptable and deviant forms of sexual expression and reproductive choice mark people as worthy and unworthy of access to state support and resources and social safety. 

CDT lays out in the research agenda for disinformation, race, and gender, that disinformation tends to be rooted in racist and misogynistic logics. Looking to the multitude of histories and sociopolitical contexts that undergird both information content and circulation also enables us to move beyond technical solutions to think more expansively about mutual entanglements of policies and technologies that perpetuate existing harms. Further, this pushes us to look to solutions that do not further enact violence against people of color. 

Potential Research Directions: Race and Information

We see the need to resource research that critically engages with histories and political contexts of information, including within immigrant diasporas and communities of color. CDT’s report highlights ways disinformation has targeted Spanish-speaking communities as well as outlines limited digital platform verification and moderation practices for non-English languages. 

My specific interest lies within examining genealogies of mis/disinformation within Asian and Asian American diasporic communities. With Madhavi Reddy and Lan Li at CITAP, we are beginning a study on Asian and Asian American information histories and ecosystems. Both the COVID-19 pandemic and 2020 U.S. presidential election have made more urgent the impact of mis/disinformation among Asian diasporic communities. Mis/disinformation spread on diasporic platforms during the 2020 U.S. presidential election raised serious concerns over civic engagement, including conservative radicalization and voter suppression. Additionally, false information spread during the COVID-19 pandemic, including: mainstream media’s uses of generic images of Chinatowns and East Asian people in masks at the start of the pandemic; the racially hostile information environment surrounding the Trump administration’s use of rhetoric such as “Kung Flu” and the “Chinese Virus”; and racist comments on social media platforms have propelled an increase in racism against Asians and Asian Americans. There is also continued incorrect and misleading health information about viral spread, prevention, and vaccination through ethnic media and diasporic platforms such as WeChat and WhatsApp.

Asian and Asian American-led groups have created bilingual projects and guides to intervene on disinformation within specific communities. Equality Labs health guides and research on disinformation in South Asian diasporic communities; Tayo Help Desk, an information platform for Filipinx communities; Viet Fact Check, providing Vietnamese Americans with verified information; and the WeChat Project, countering right-wing narratives for Chinese Americans. Additionally, Rachel Moran and Sarah Nguyễn at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public are working on a project analyzing the spread of misinformation in Vietnamese American communities during the 2020 election. 

Rather than see communities as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘susceptible’ to false information, approaches that bring together histories of migration and lived experiences allow us to see how political analyses develop, as well as identify the role of social and cultural hierarchies of power, such as race, class, caste, religion, and ethnicity.