Scholarly Discourse on Political Misinformation (April 2024)

This essay first appeared in the April 2024 issue of Choice (volume 61 | issue 8).

Introduction:

From the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 to the propagation of fake celebrity headlines in 2023, the deliberate or unintentional generation and dissemination of inaccurate information, commonly known as misinformation, has been persistent throughout human history. The intricate relationship between misinformation and politics, as illustrated in examples ranging from Octavian’s propaganda campaign against Antony in 44 BCE to the prevalence of fabricated information in contemporary elections across various nations, including the United States, France, Germany, Kenya, the Philippines, and others, is also not a novel phenomenon.

Numerous scholarly manuscripts have investigated misinformation across diverse domains. The edited collection Misinformation and Mass Audiences provides a comprehensive analysis of how misinformation molds public perceptions and behaviors on a mass scale. Cailin O’Connor and James Weatherall’s study The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread considers how misinformation circulates in the first place, offering an accessible introduction to the topic. Scholars have also delved into the history, causes, impacts, and counterstrategies associated with political misinformation over the past decade. Indeed, politicians wield considerable influence in shaping the information landscape, rendering political misinformation both pervasive and compelling to examine in the scholarly literature on the subject. Meanwhile, the rapid evolution of technology and the revolution in the media industry have contributed to the burgeoning interest in this specific facet of misinformation, given that the media often plays a pivotal role in shaping public opinion and discourse—fundamental components of political engagement. For example, in Flat Earth News, investigative journalist Nick Davies critiques modern journalism for becoming increasingly driven by corporate interests and sensationalism at the expense of the quality and accuracy of news reporting. In Democracy without Journalism?: Confronting the Misinformation Society, Victor Pickard, an expert in media policy and political economy at the University of Pennsylvania, critically examines the vital role and precarious state of journalism in today’s democratic society, probing the implications of misinformation therein.

This bibliographic essay reviews many scholarly manuscripts predominantly focused on political misinformation, exploring its intersections with propaganda, fake news, free speech, technology, the media, science/health, and education. Due to constraints of the length of this essay and the author’s expertise, this survey concentrates primarily on English-language titles pertaining to the American information environment. A few titles beyond the American political context are incorporated, particularly those addressing the COVID-19 global pandemic, to offer insights into international discussions and strategies countering misinformation. Studies have underscored the intricate intertwining of health misinformation and political polarization.1 Within the realm of political misinformation, health-related misinformation is a crucial aspect to examine, yet it remains underexplored in scholarly manuscripts. This essay also encompasses topics of scientific misinformation and media education to provide a comprehensive bibliographic review of interventions targeting misinformation.

UNESCO has long applauded the significant impact of information literacy on cultivating global citizens and addressing injustices in globalization.2 As editor Anne Mintz points out in her introduction to the thought-provoking Web of Deceit: Misinformation and Manipulation in the Age of Social Media, however, “there is a growing digital divide between people who are closer to the facts and people who aren’t” (p. xi). While discussions in many of the manuscripts covered in this essay contribute to the formation of an information ecosystem that fosters better informed and more engaged global citizens, the perspectives of minority communities are only discussed in the concluding section of this essay, providing a brief overview of relevant projects rather than an in-depth exploration in manuscripts, a critical gap in the current literature.


1. Nicholas Francis Havey, “Partisan Public Health: How Does Political Ideology Influence Support for COVID-19 Related Misinformation?” Journal of Computational Social Science 3, no. 2 (2020): 319–42, https://doi.org/10.1007/s42001-020-00089-2.

2. “Media and Information Literacy,” UNESCO, accessed January 8, 2024, https://www.unesco.org/en/media-information-literacy.

About the Author:

Yi Ding is a tenured faculty librarian at California State University Northridge and a certified PBS Media Literacy Educator.