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    Misinformation, Disinformation and Mal-Information

    Module 5: ‘False News’, Misinformation & Propaganda

    The socio-technical context

    In interrogating the root of this problem, it is clear that social media has played a substantial role in the widespread distribution of misleading messages. This can be attributed to the heightened impact of social media compared to traditional platforms due to their speed, broad reach, and personalised features.(1)

    User-generated content capabilities enable individuals to craft false messages while social interactions online facilitate the dissemination of these messages quickly and widely.(2) Social media features that enable users to “share,” “repost” and “follow” also amplify the reach of false information within these platforms, with little formal fact-checking or verification of information.(3)

    Other digital products such as algorithms, which now determine which information is seen and prioritised by audiences, and websites that publish and disseminate such information, also contribute to the challenge.(4)

    Misinformation has the powerful potential to influence opinions and behaviours in various contexts such as politics and elections. (5) The crisis of sustainability within the traditional media sector, fuelled by the growing dominance of the big tech platforms and the rapid shift away from print news, has also contributed to a generally poor information ecosystem in which misinformation and disinformation are able to thrive.

    This, alongside more insidious practices such as the intentional distribution of disinformation for economic or political gain, has created what UNESCO refers to as a “perfect storm.”(6)

    UNESCO identifies three causes enabling the spread of misinformation:

    1. Collapsing traditional business models: As a result of the rapid decline in advertising revenue and the failure of digital advertising to generate profit, traditional newsrooms are bleeding audiences, with media consumers moving to “peer-to-peer” news products offering “on demand-access.” These decreasing budgets lead to reduced quality control and less time for “checks and balances”. They also promote “click-bait” journalism.(7) Importantly there are no commonly agreed ethics and standards on peer-to-peer news.
    2. Digital transformation of newsrooms and storytelling. As the information age develops, there is a discernible digital transformation in the news industry. This transformation causes journalists to prepare content for multiple platforms, limiting their ability to properly interrogate facts. Often, journalists apply a principle of “social-first publishing” whereby their stories are posted directly to social media to meet audience demand in real-time. This, in turn, promotes click-bait practices and the pursuit of “virality” as opposed to quality and accuracy.(8)
    3. The creation of new news ecosystems. With increasing access to online audiences as a result of the advent of social media platforms, users of these platforms can curate their own content streams and create their own “trust network” or “echo chambers” within which inaccurate, false, malicious, and propagandistic content can spread. These new ecosystems allow misinformation to flourish as users are more likely to share sensationalist stories and less likely to properly assess sources or facts. Importantly, once published, a user who becomes aware that a publication may constitute misinformation is largely unable to “pull back” or correct the publication.(9)

    Rise in online false news in elections in Spain

    In the lead-up to Spain’s regional and municipal elections in May 2023, false claims about mail ballots and election fraud circulated widely across social media platforms, echoing similar assertions made by former United States President Donald Trump prior to his 2020 election loss.(10) Debunked videos supposedly displaying election fraud spread on platforms including Facebook and Twitter.(11) Other videos circulated on Facebook and TikTok alleging electoral manipulation by the then-outgoing and currently re-elected Prime Minister’s party.(12)

    Research uncovered numerous instances of election-related misinformation across platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok in Spain.(13) While content types vary, election denialism remains a prevalent theme around the world. Conspiracy groups have been found to orchestrate social media attacks resulting in distrust of independent media and creating barriers to users’ access to credible information.(14)

    Journalism, political advertising, and elections

    Journalism faces the threat of being overshadowed by the widespread dissemination of false information which significantly diminishes the impact of the accurate news disseminated by journalists.(15) There is also the risk of manipulation, with actors aiming to corrupt journalists or manipulate them beyond the ethical bounds of their profession.(16) Journalists, particularly those committed to uncovering inconvenient truths, often become targets of deliberate lies, rumours, and hoaxes designed to discredit their work. This is exacerbated by the instrumentalisation of false concerns by powerful entities, leading to the imposition of stringent laws that could suppress genuine news media.(17)

    In the realm of political advertising and elections, the landscape lacks uniformity at the European Union (EU) level. Although the rights to freedom of expression and free elections could be interrelated, in certain circumstances, they may come into conflict.(18) The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has emphasised that the interaction between freedom of expression and the right to free elections can either complement each other or create conflicts based on specific circumstances.(19) In fact, the issue predates the era of social media, with the Court emphasising in the 1987 Mathieu-Mohin and Clerfayt v Belgium matter that it is the responsibility of state authorities to facilitate the free expression of people’s opinions during elections.(20)

    False information during elections

    In the Salov v Ukraine (2005) case, the ECtHR reviewed a scenario involving a newspaper disseminating false information about the alleged death of a presidential candidate.(21) Despite the factual inaccuracy, the ECtHR recognised that the information related to the elections influenced the electorate’s ability to support a particular candidate.(22) Consequently, the ECtHR maintained that the same principles governing political discourse apply irrespective of the factual accuracy of the information, emphasising that even if the distributor strongly suspected the information’s untruthfulness, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) did not prohibit the dissemination of information.(23)  

    A guide to anti-misinformation actions around the world

    The Poynter Institute, an international resource on journalism, has compiled information about global efforts to regulate misinformation in various ways, including through laws, and media literacy programmes, amongst other things.(24)France passed a law that outlaws election misinformation in 2018, Croatia is reportedly working on a draft bill against hate speech and misinformation, Belarus has passed amendments to media laws that allow prosecution of people who spread false information online, and Russia has also passed an anti-misinformation bill that bans the spread of “unreliable socially-important information.”

    The EU Disinfo Lab provides a similar resource targeted at EU states.


    1. Elinor Carmi and others, ‘Data citizenship: Rethinking data literacy in the age of disinformation, misinformation, and malinformation’ (2020) 9(2) Internet Policy Review 5-6 (accessible at Back
    2. Id. Back
    3. Elinor Carmi and others, ‘Data citizenship: Rethinking data literacy in the age of disinformation, misinformation, and malinformation’ (2020) 9(2) Internet Policy Review 5-6 (accessible at Back
    4. Ali Khan and others, ‘The anatomy of “fake news”: Studying false messages as digital objects” (2022) 37(2) Journal of Information Technology 125 (accessible at Back
    5. Above n 1 at p. 18. Back
    6. Id. Back
    7. Above n 1 at p. 57. Back
    8. Above n 1 at pp. 57-8. Back
    9. Above n 1 pp. 59-61. Back
    10. AP, ‘Warning over online misinformation ahead of Spanish election’ (2023) Euronews (accessible at Back
    11. Id. Back
    12. Above n 21. Back
    13. Above n 21. Back
    14. International Press Institute, ‘New report: How conspiracy groups in Spain worked to undermine the media literacy project of the foundation’ (2023) (accessible at Back
    15. UNESCO, ‘Journalism, “Fake News” & Disinformation: Handbook for Journalism Education and Training’ (2018) (accessible at Back
    16. Id. Back
    17. Above n 26. Back
    18. Paolo Cavaliere, ‘The Truth in Fake News: How Disinformation Laws Are Reframing the Concepts of Truth and Accuracy on Digital Platforms’ (2022) 3 European Convention on Human Rights Law Review 513 (accessible at Back
    19. Id. Back
    20. (Application no. 9267/81) (1998) para. 54 (accessible at{“languageisocode”:[“ENG”],”appno”:[“9267/81″],”documentcollectionid2”:[“CHAMBER”],”itemid”:[“001-57536”]}). Back
    21. (Application no. 65518/01) (2005) para. 111 (accessible at v. UKRAINE.docx&logEvent=False). Back
    22. Id. Back
    23. Above n 32 para. 113. Back
    24. Daniel Funke and Daniela Flamini, ‘A guide to anti-misinformation actions around the world,’ Poynter (accessible at Back