Many of the stories that pundits, journalists, and scholars tell about disinformation begin with the 2016 US presidential election and focus on the role of social media platforms in spreading and generating false content. At their worst, these narratives imply that in the past, everyone shared the same sense of what was true and what was false; that this collective understanding was reinforced by legacy media like newspapers and TV news; and that “fake news,” disinformation, and inauthentic online behavior are responsible for a global far-right shift to populism exemplified by Brexit and the Trump presidency. None of these assumptions hold up to scrutiny.
At CITAP, we take a critical approach to research on platforms, politics, and information which incorporates history, inequality, power, and culture. To demonstrate how these principles play out in practice, we created a Critical Disinformation Studies syllabus as a provocation to disinformation researchers to rethink many of the assumptions of our nascent field. While the syllabus is fully-functional as is—it could be implemented in its current form for a graduate level seminar—it is also an essay in syllabus form. We draw from a very broad range of scholarship, much which falls outside of conventional studies of “disinformation,” to expand our understanding of what “counts” as disinformation. The syllabus draws from historical case studies—Japanese incarceration, the Welfare Queen, the Central Park 5, AIDS/HIV—to examine how the state, the media, and the political establishment regularly use disinformation to reinforce inequality.
The syllabus is the work of Alice Marwick, Rachel Kuo, Shanice Cameron, and Moira Weigel, with support from both CITAP and Data & Society. Our thanks go out to the many scholars whose work inspired us to bring this project to life.