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The disinformation order: Disruptive communication and the decline of democratic institutions

Article (PDF Available) inEuropean Journal of Communication 33(2):122-139 · April 2018with1,432 Reads
DOI: 10.1177/0267323118760317
Lance Bennett at University of Washington Seattle
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Many democratic nations are experiencing increased levels of false information circulating through social media and political websites that mimic journalism formats. In many cases, this disinformation is associated with the efforts of movements and parties on the radical right to mobilize supporters against centre parties and the mainstream press that carries their messages. The spread of disinformation can be traced to growing legitimacy problems in many democracies. Declining citizen confidence in institutions undermines the credibility of official information in the news and opens publics to alternative information sources. Those sources are often associated with both nationalist (primarily radical right) and foreign (commonly Russian) strategies to undermine institutional legitimacy and destabilize centre parties, governments and elections. The Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States are among the most prominent examples of disinformation campaigns intended to disrupt normal democratic order, but many other nations display signs of disinformation and democratic disruption. The origins of these problems and their implications for political communication research are explored.
European Journal of Communication
2018, Vol. 33(2) 122 –139
© The Author(s) 2018
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DOI: 10.1177/0267323118760317
The disinformation order:
Disruptive communication
and the decline of democratic
W Lance Bennett
University of Washington, USA
Steven Livingston
The George Washington University, USA
Many democratic nations are experiencing increased levels of false information circulating
through social media and political websites that mimic journalism formats. In many cases, this
disinformation is associated with the efforts of movements and parties on the radical right
to mobilize supporters against centre parties and the mainstream press that carries their
messages. The spread of disinformation can be traced to growing legitimacy problems in many
democracies. Declining citizen confidence in institutions undermines the credibility of official
information in the news and opens publics to alternative information sources. Those sources are
often associated with both nationalist (primarily radical right) and foreign (commonly Russian)
strategies to undermine institutional legitimacy and destabilize centre parties, governments and
elections. The Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the
United States are among the most prominent examples of disinformation campaigns intended
to disrupt normal democratic order, but many other nations display signs of disinformation
and democratic disruption. The origins of these problems and their implications for political
communication research are explored.
Disinformation, fake news, institutions, political communication
Corresponding author:
W Lance Bennett, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA.
760317EJC0010.1177/0267323118760317European Journal of CommunicationBennett and Livingston
Bennett and Livingston 123
Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others
that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you
had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Shortly after Donald Trump moved into the White House, a little-known filmmaker
named Ami Horowitz told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson (2017) that Sweden was facing an
unprecedented crime wave at the hands of Muslim refugees and immigrants. Horowitz’s
claims were reinforced by a video montage consisting of a dark-skinned man hitting a
policeman, shots of a burning car and short clips taken from Horowitz’s film. It is unclear
whether the scenes of the burning car or the assault on the policeman were shot in Sweden,
though that was the implication. Swedish police officers are heard to confirm the exist-
ence of a massive rise in crime linked to Muslim immigration. Throughout the Fox News
segment, Carlson maintains a look of bemused incredulity at the naiveté of the Swedes.
At a political rally in Florida, the next day, President Trump said, ‘You look at what’s
happening last night in Sweden. Sweden! Who would believe this?’ (Noack, 2017).
Those were good questions: What happened in Sweden and who would believe it?
Trump’s enigmatic remarks set off a flurry of inquiries by reporters in Europe and the
United States. Did Trump have intelligence agency reports on something that no one else
knew? Eventually, Trump would confess that he got his information from the Horowitz
interview on Fox News. Yet, by the next day, many of Horowitz’s statements in the film
and in subsequent interviews were ridiculed by Swedish authorities and dismissed as
nonsense by most news and fact-checking organizations (Aftonbladet, 2017; Topping,
2017). The policemen featured in Horowitz’s film even accused him of distorting their
views with selective editing, a claim that was backed up by Horowitz’s cameraman
(Lindkvist, 2017). To make matters worse for his storyline, even the right-wing US site
Breitbart could not come up with evidence to lend credence to Horowitz’s and Fox News’
take on crime in Sweden (Gramer, 2017).
A few days later, the story grew more bizarre when a Russian news crew turned up in
Rinkeby, a suburb of Stockholm with a sizable Muslim immigrant population, offering
cash to residents willing to stage a riot for their cameras. ‘They came up to us and said
they wanted to see some action. They wanted to bribe us 400 [krona] each’ (Gramer,
2017). This bit of immersive theatre unfolded as a real Danish radio news crew stumbled
on the scene and ended up covering the Russian fake news team’s failed efforts to orches-
trate a make-believe riot.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, Fox News’ former star Bill O’Reilly invited
someone named Nils Bilts, hyped as a ‘Swedish defense and national security adviser’,
to confirm the immigrant crime wave narrative (Taylor, 2017). In the segment’s introduc-
tion, O’Reilly emphasized – ironically, given his subsequent firing from Fox for sexual
harassment – that rampant sexual assaults had left ‘women feeling unsafe’. Bilt gravely
confirmed O’Reilly’s assertions. The next day, a Swedish newspaper discovered that not
only was Bilt unknown in Swedish military or security circles, his name was not actually
Bilt. Furthermore, Nils G. Tolling, his real name, had spent a year in a Virginia prison for
assault. In short, while using a pseudonym, a real ex-convict qua fake security expert
124 European Journal of Communication 33(2)
appeared on O’Reilly’s then top rated Fox News programme to confirm mostly fabri-
cated allegations of rape and other crimes.
This upside down world of disinformation can have dizzying effects, as The
Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum (2017) attempted to summarize the chain
of fabrication:
A faked film inspired the president to cite an imaginary crisis, the existence of which was
confirmed by a fake expert – and which now inspired another television team to try to create a
real crisis using real people (in a neighborhood crawling with both real and fake journalists) to
make it all seem true.
Disinformation and the radical right
How do we make sense of such disorienting episodes of disinformation that have begun
to appear in many nations? In particular, how do we decide whether dubious stories are
isolated moments of disorienting absurdity, or part of larger information flows aimed at,
in the above case, spreading anti-refugee propaganda and fueling right-wing reactionary
movements? We provisionally define disinformation, to be elaborated below, as the fol-
lowing: intentional falsehoods spread as news stories or simulated documentary formats
to advance political goals. We also suggest caution in adopting the term ‘fake news’ that
has become a popular media reference on grounds that it tends to frame the problem as
isolated incidents of falsehood and confusion. By contrast, disinformation invites look-
ing at more systematic disruptions of authoritative information flows due to strategic
deceptions that may appear very credible to those consuming them. Solving these prob-
lems requires more than just fact-checking and setting the record straight and goes to
deeper issues of repairing political institutions and democratic values. While the origins
of much, and perhaps most, disinformation are obscure, it often passes through the gates
of the legacy media, resulting in an ‘amplifier effect’ for stories that would be dismissed
as absurd in earlier eras of more effective press gatekeeping. It is ironic that this ampli-
fier effect may be strengthened when quality news organizations attempt to fact check
and correct the record (Wood and Porter, 2018). An earlier case in the United States was
the ‘birther movement’ that promoted the idea that Barack Obama was born outside the
United States and therefore disqualified to be President. Despite the production, on more
than one occasion, of an official birth certificate verifying that Obama was born in
Hawaii, duplicitous political figures such as Donald Trump were able to gain the simul-
taneous attention of both the legacy press and a then emerging ‘alt-right’ media system.
This media amplification fed back through mainstream and alternative communication
channels as a disruptive and disorienting reverberation, reaching mainstream audiences.
Trump bowed out of a run for the presidency in 2011–2012 and was even made a laugh-
ingstock by President Obama at a National Press Club dinner with Trump in attendance
(MacAskill, 2011). Yet, by the next election cycle, the political and media environment
had changed enough to enable someone once dismissed as a joke to ride a seemingly
obsessive disregard for facts to the presidency in 2016.
Both during the campaign and as the president, Trump often dismissed the main-
stream press as ‘fake news’. After his first year in office, he created the Fake News
Bennett and Livingston 125
Awards, with four going to CNN, two to The New York Times, while ABC, Washington
Post, Time and Newsweek rounded out the top 10 with one prize each. Such antics
shocked many, but his supporters seemed to celebrate the disregard for facts, decorum
and basic decency as ‘Trump-telling-it-like-it-is’. The distracting attacks on the main-
stream press, paired with supportive but spurious storylines in the alt-right media liber-
ated large numbers of people from the constraints of evidence and reason and fueled
public discourses driven by anger, hate, prejudice and lies.
Attacks on the press are not new. For example, Richard Nixon’s vice president Spiro
Agnew is remembered for his criminal conviction on charges of tax evasion and for his
famous 1970 speech when he referred to the press as ‘nattering nabobs of negativism’
(Sullivan, 2016). Nor are fake news stories particularly new developments. Indeed,
activists (primarily on the right) have developed methods of hidden camera stings and
creative editing to lure political opponents into media traps (Dorf and Tarrow, 2017). A
healthy press system can generally absorb occasional official attacks on the press, and
scattered partisan sting operations that make the news. But it is something else entirely
when public information systems develop large media networks that routinely spread
deception and amplify official attacks on the legacy press. Those who support the radical
right in the United States and, to varying degrees in other countries, can now find alterna-
tive media promoting opposing versions of daily reality. These algorithmically enabled
communities of like-minded persons now exist on scales not captured by terms like ‘fil-
ter bubbles’ (Pariser, 2012).
While there is surely some degree of truth-stretching running across the political spec-
trum, it appears particularly concentrated on the authoritarian right, where liberal demo-
cratic values present growing challenges to movement values of ethnic nationalism and
the restoration of mythical cultural traditions. The term ‘alt-right’ originated in the United
States and referred initially to White nationalists, neo-Nazis and their communication
media. However, the term has expanded in recent years to encompass a broader range of
interconnected radical right causes and conspiracies promoted through information sites
that often mimic journalism formats in order to distribute strategic disinformation. It is
this tilt towards strategic partisan disinformation that distinguishes the alt-right from
more conservative or centre-right media.
There are of course grey areas in the boundaries between what counts as journalism,
partisan journalism and the alt-right disinformation order. In addition, sites and organiza-
tions move around for various reasons, as Fox news in the United States has become more
of a bridge between the legacy press and the alt-right sphere while Breitbart (as of this
writing) has emerged as the centre of a dense alt-right media sphere. In our analyses, we
use the term alt-right media to refer to sites and platforms that produce and distribute
disinformation in order to advance partisan agendas and to destabilize opponents and
institutions. Disinformation is sometimes mixed with news reports of documented events
to enhance its aura of authenticity. This characterization departs a bit from the classifica-
tion offered by Faris et al. (2017), which retains the alt-right label for White nationalist
sites and places Breitbart in the centre of what they term a ‘right wing media ecosystem’,
which they credit with spreading disinformation. We prefer to distinguish between sites
that are importantly engaged with spreading disinformation such as Breitbart (which we
term alt-right), and conservative media that continue to practice journalism with a partisan
126 European Journal of Communication 33(2)
spin. Indeed, we defer to no less an authority than Steve Bannon, Trump campaign chief,
former White House advisor, who was later reinstated and then fired as CEO of Breitbart.
Bannon proclaimed that, as a result of his leadership at Breitbart, ‘We’re the platform for
the alt-right’ (Posner, 2016). When he was dismissed from his position at the White House,
Bannon was reported to have said, ‘Now I’m free. I’ve got my hands back on my weap-
ons’. (Gold and Farhi, 2017). It turned out that the real control of the weapons belonged
to the billionaire Mercer family who invested in Breitbart and objected to Bannon’s criti-
cism of Trump and his family in a popular tell-all book about the West Wing.
Similar distinctions between alt-right disinformation sites, the partisan press and
mainstream journalism can be applied to other nations. Indeed, a prominent subtext of
the disinformation order in many nations is to level charges of ‘fake news’ or the ‘lying
press’ at journalism that attempts to correct disinformation, or to reassert other norms of
democratic decorum. Typical of Trump rallies in the United States, as well as the anti-
refugee PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) movement
and the aligned Alternative für Deutschland Party in Germany, chants of ‘lying press’ at
public rallies were often covered by the mainstream media, further empowering radical
movements to challenge the established information order. Beyond reaching broader
audiences with disorienting messages, a variety of media platforms (varying across
nations) offer alternative communication spaces to produce and distribute subcultural
narratives of stronger authority, nationalism, anti-immigrant elite conspiracies that often
traffic in anti-Semitic tropes, and the restoration of traditional (White) nationalist values,
among others. Those narratives, in turn, often cycle back through the mainstream media,
repeating the disinformation–amplification–reverberation (DAR) cycle.
The movement of disinformation between alt-right and mainstream media has many
effects, including emboldening radical attacks on mainstream journalists. In Germany,
for example, there have been numerous threats and right-wing social media attacks on
journalists covering the refugee crisis, making many of them guarded about their public
statements (Spiegel, 2016). In the 2016 US election, Trump crowds at rallies often
chanted ‘fake news’ and ‘lying press’ as the candidate pointed at reporters covering the
events, resulting in security guards escorting journalists from rallies for their safety. Such
intimidation did not stop with the presidential election. In another case, a Republican
congressional candidate physically assaulted a reporter from The Guardian newspaper
(Wong and Levin, 2017). And as president, Trump continued to call CNN and its White
House correspondent ‘fake news’ (CNN Video, 2017). He even retweeted a doctored
video of himself at a wrestling match doing violence to a CNN journalist. All of this
understandably produces shock in many good citizens who wonder what is happening to
their once stable democracies and generally harmonious societies.
The origins and implications of an emerging disinformation
In this article, we offer modest steps towards understanding the communication pro-
cesses at work in the spread of disinformation in democratic societies. We suggest that
public spheres in many nations have become divided and disrupted as growing chal-
lenges confront the democratic centring principles of (a) authoritative information, (b)
Bennett and Livingston 127
emanating from social and political institutions that (c) engage trusting and credulous
publics. At the core of our argument is the breakdown of trust in democratic institutions
of press and politics (along with educational and civil society institutions in more
advanced cases). This loss of trust is not ephemeral but grounded in the hollowing of
parties and diminished electoral representation. By contrast, in the high modern period
of democracy, in the mid to late 20th century, trust in institutions was greater and public
authorities commanded more control over public information (Bennett and Pfetsch, in
press). For example, Eurobarometer trends for citizens of the European Union (EU)
show that average trust levels for national parliaments and governments have dropped
to around 30%, down a dozen points from levels recorded before the financial crisis of
2008 (European Commission, 2015: 6). National differences are of course substantial,
as an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on
trust in institutions indicates. Nations such as Germany and Switzerland have rebounded
since the financial crisis to higher levels of trust in national governments, but more than
half of the European members of the OECD (2017: 20) have slipped below 2007 confi-
dence levels.
Despite growing signs that serious disruptions are occurring in public spheres in many
democracies, most political communication and press politics research continues to
study how authoritative information is framed by legacy media organizations and distrib-
uted to publics who use it to inform their engagement with political institutions such as
parties and elections. The implication of much of the research that fills journals in these
fields is that most democratic nations continue to operate with encompassing and reason-
ably functional democratic pubic spheres. The disruptive bits often become lumped into
the burgeoning study of populism, which floats mysteriously above the institutional
order as if it is the result of inexplicably grumpy publics who are annoyed by elites these
days. With the convenient add-on of populism, the democratic order sails on in research
journals, propelled by the usual concepts (framing, agenda-setting, indexing, gatekeep-
ing, and effects), which often seem more the objects of study than useful concepts for
understanding actual politics (Bennett and Pfetsch, in press).
To some extent, the persistence of research that reifies and reconstructs a passing
order is somewhat understandable since the surfaces of politics appear much as ever: the
mainstream press continues to report what officials say, many citizens continue to con-
sume and react to that information, and elections continue to be held and winners and
losers generally accept the results as the will of the people. However, under this surface
are growing legitimacy crisis produced by the hollowing out of centre parties as mecha-
nisms for meaningful citizen engagement (Mair, 2013). Perhaps, even more disturbing
are findings of diminished electoral and policy representation for all but the upper eco-
nomic demographics in most democratic nations (Bartels, 2017). These conditions, along
with the rising power of business elites and the reliance on market solutions to social
problems as prescribed by neoliberal policy regimes, have led Crouch (2004) to give the
term post-democracy to these increasingly superficial democratic processes.
This breakdown of core processes of political representation, along with the declining
authority of institutions and public officials opens national information systems to a mix
of strategic disinformation from both national and foreign actors. Adding chaos to these
disinformation flows are large volumes of independently produced fake news aimed at
128 European Journal of Communication 33(2)
getting clicks and shares to support standard business models on social media. When this
‘for-profit’ fake news takes on partisan aspects, as it often does, it may be picked up by
social media bots and distributed as part of larger disinformation campaigns.
The breakdown of authority in democratic institutions, combined with the growth of
alternative information channels producing popular political mythologies, is mobilizing
many citizens to join the upsurge in support for movements and parties outside the centre,
particularly on the right. As these radical right movements reject the core institutions of
press and politics, along with the authorities who speak through them, there is a growing
demand for alternative information and leadership that explains how things got so out of
order. There is no shortage in the supply of such information. Depending on the country,
one finds a mix of sources, including (a) alt news sites promoting ethnic nationalism, anti-
immigrant and refugee hate news, and globalist conspiracies, along with tie-ins to daily
national political news developments; (b) party and movement website networks such as
those run by the Austrian Freedom Party, with links to Facebook and social media accounts
of leaders supplying updates on party news, interspersed with ‘nostalgic’ nationalist prop-
aganda; (c) foreign ‘non linear warfare’ operations (a term coined by Putin advisor
Vladislav Surkov) aimed at destabilizing elections and governments; and (d) along with
enterprising fake news businesses springing up in the ‘attention economy’.
There are of course some radical left networks also spreading disinformation, and
engaging with fake news. Like their counterparts on the right, many on the radical left
have become wary of centre parties and the corruption of democratic institutions, adding
to the legitimacy crisis of modern democracy (Della Porta et al., 2017). However, the
more general tendency on the radical left is to use impressive outlays of social media and
web platforms to organize episodic economic justice and anti-political corruption mobi-
lizations such as Occupy Wall Street and the Spanish M-15 Indignados. Beyond these
visible but short-lived movements, and a handful of movement-parties such as Podemos
in Spain, the left seems to have become more engaged with local projects, often celebrat-
ing an ethos of direct, deliberative, participatory democracy that does not translate well
into party formation or comparable levels of electoral success. (Bennett et al., 2017;
Curtis, 2016).
The role of changing media systems
Not only was trust in institutions and official information higher during earlier eras of
democracy, there were comparably fewer media channels through which official infor-
mation passed. The combination of higher trust and fewer public information sources
enabled both authorities and the press to exercise more effective gatekeeping against
wild or dangerous narratives from the social fringes or foreign adversaries. The more
recent volatile mix of institutional corrosion and media abundance has enabled counter
politics to take on corrosive and undemocratic forms in many societies, as alternative
media flows reach large audiences and help organize movements and parties that have
gained higher levels of electoral success. An important aspect of this mobilization of
radical right movements involves the circulation of counter cultural narratives that chal-
lenge the very principles of democratic freedoms and tolerance and undermine the norms
of reason and evidence on which rational public debate in democracies depends.
Bennett and Livingston 129
If we are to understand the rise of undemocratic or ‘illiberal’ politics preying on the
weakness of core institutions, understanding the proliferation of communication chan-
nels is a good place to begin (Zakaria, 1997). Compared to the mass media era, the cur-
rent age displays a kaleidoscopic mediascape of television networks, newspapers and
magazines (both online and print), YouTube, WikiLeak, and LiveLeak content, Astroturf
think tanks, radical websites spreading disinformation using journalistic formats, Twitter
and Facebook among other social media, troll factories, bots, and 4chan discussion
threads, among others. Also important but nearly impossible to study, because of the
inaccessibility of data, are Snapchat, Tor-protected websites, and messaging and com-
munication platforms such as WhatsApp, Signal messaging and Voice-over-Internet
Protocol, Telegram Messenger, and Proton Mail. While some are billion-dollar media
empires, others are billionaire-backed and heavily trafficked websites such as the US
sites Breitbart, backed by early Trump supporter Robert Mercer, and The Daily Caller,
backed by Charles Koch and other far right players to promote a broad anti-government
agenda (Gold, 2017). Other sites such as InfoWars depend on sales of often-bizarre prod-
ucts such as Survival Shield X-2 Next Level Nascent Iodine (US$39.95 per ounce)
hawked by CEO and anchor Alex Jones (Brown, 2017; Reed, 2017).
In the case of the United States, these visible, heavily trafficked, and often networked
media link in and out of broader networks of political foundations, think tanks, grass
roots and Astroturf political organizations, communication professionals and political
organizers. This complex set of organizations advances an agenda that mixes tax and
regulatory benefits for the wealthy, with disinformation about climate change, immigra-
tion, refugees, government waste and ineptitude, and a host of other issues aimed at stir-
ring political crowds. Those larger publics provide political cover and electoral power
for the political agendas of those attempting to manage these unwieldy political assem-
blages (Mayer, 2016; Skocpol and Hertel-Fernandez, 2016). The different publics and
political agendas running through the sprawling networks of the radical right in America
suggest that there are various tensions and political fault lines around race, anti-Semitism
and various conspiracy theories. However, these networks can also display remarkable
coherence of organization, reflecting the ‘hybridity’ that Chadwick (2013) describes in
various political communication processes associated with a post-bureaucratic order. For
example, it is clear that high levels of framing coherence and audience reach assisted the
Trump election in 2016. Moreover, right-wing media networks also played a role in set-
ting the mainstream media agenda for that election (Faris et al., 2017). It has also become
clear that foreign agents such as Russian hackers like Fancy Bear, trolls and bots spread
partisan disinformation to many voters, adding another layer of complexity to national
disinformation orders (Brustein, 2016).
Trump was in many ways both a creature and an assembler of these motley networks,
navigating the fault lines both before and after his election by communicating with neo-
Nazis, White nationalists, anti-globalist conspiracy networks interspersed with dis-
courses about immigrants, refugees, Islam and terrorists. During the election, he fired up
discontented voters, both Republicans and Democrats, with his populist promises to
‘drain the swamp’ of corruption in Washington. Trump’s continuous twitter blasts broke
the mould for presidential communications and press government relations, directly
reaching his large following of real, fake and bot accounts (20 million in January 2017
130 European Journal of Communication 33(2)
and jumping to 46 million a year later). Beyond their direct audience reach, Trump’s
tweets fueled a large volume of news across the mainstream and alternative media
spheres keeping the focus of attention on himself, although often in negative ways. While
chaos dominated both social media and the headlines, the Trump team quietly repopu-
lated the ‘swamp’ of government with his own set of industrial lobbyists and former
executives empowered to regulate their own industries. For the most part, the main-
stream news cycle focused on a mix of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and con-
gressional investigations, scandals, staff resignations, and Trump’s own bizarre
behaviour. His continuing attacks on the ‘fake news media’ such as CNN seemed aimed
at shoring up his dwindling popular support and inoculating his movement against what-
ever bad news might emerge from the many investigations underway.
Although the United States may be exceptional in the degree to which disinformation
has become fully integrated into national politics, various patterns of disruptive move-
ments, parties and disinformation can be found in most democracies today. Many nations
continue to hold dissembling factions in check by strong centre parties and grand coali-
tions. Yet, the impact of disinformation is pronounced even in more stable nations such as
Germany. While overall faith in institutions and the legacy press remains high, there are
growing disruptions of elections, government, and everyday civility due to an angry right-
wing movement has broken with the traditional institutional order. The movement insu-
lates itself from once authoritative information by actively producing its own
disinformation, while consuming and spreading similar stories from Russian sources.
Beyond the spread of fake news, German parties, politicians and government agencies
have experienced a wave of cyber attacks from Russian sources, including the ‘Fancy
Bear’ hacker group that released Clinton campaign emails during the US elections in
2016. Other teams linked to Russian intelligence agencies have hacked Bundestag data
and email archives. All of this occurs against the backdrop of a steady flow of fake news
stories from Russian media outlets, with stories widely circulated on social media by bots.
Both domestic and foreign disinformation aim to disrupt the institutional order, under-
mine politicians, stir anti-refugee sentiments and create confusion around elections. As a
result of these disruptions, Germany passed legislation (Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz)
against fake news and hate-speech in social media. The law requires media companies to
remove such content or face large fines, a tricky problem that immediately led Facebook
to raise a host of legal objections.
Many other nations suffering similar disruptions seem to trust that the centre institu-
tions will hold firm against the prospects of illiberal factions gaining power. For exam-
ple, Swedes may take comfort that the Sweden Democrats appear to have topped out as
the third largest party and will not be invited into governing coalitions any time soon.
And citizens in Austria, Switzerland and Denmark may be thankful that when their radi-
cal right nationalist parties have entered or supported governments, they have proved
less extreme than those in some neighbouring countries. Perhaps, civil society and politi-
cal institutions in these countries are stronger and better able to stop the drift into illiber-
alism. However, even when radical right parties and governments in other nations avoid
the illiberal paths taken in the United States, Hungary, Poland, Turkey or most of the
Balkans, it is important to pay attention to the direction of public discourses, violations
of public safety and proposed policies.
Bennett and Livingston 131
Even cases that do not fit cleanly into a story about the rise of the radical right reflect
deeper institutional and communication breakdowns within democracies: the Brexit vote
in the United Kingdom, the rise of Bepe Grillo and the sprawling Five Star Movement in
Italy, or Emmanuel Macron and his En Marche movement/party that won the French
elections in 2017 (Iacoboni, 2016). Signaling deeper institutional disruption, Macron’s
election came with record low voter turnouts despite unsavoury competition from the
National Front, and his approval ratings slid from the mid-60s into the mid-30% range
after 3 months in office.
Diagnosing the problem: Radical right or populism?
It is difficult for many who remain attached to the political centre to take the disorienting
narratives emerging from these disinformation ecologies seriously. As a result, one can
easily miss the empowerment offered to those who embrace and spread the disinforma-
tion. What appear on the surface to be blatantly false and bizarre stories may appeal to
deeper myths and emotions among publics who support anti-democratic policies such as
limitations on the free press and restrictions on civil liberties. Few centrist citizens can
stomach spending much time browsing through the alt-right media sites, and it is easy to
dismiss the wild stories that pass through the mainstream press as isolated cases.
However, evidence suggests they are part of broader trend. A recent study of nations in
the EU linking European Social Survey data to election trends and party programmes
shows that vote share of radical right parties has grown disproportionately to counter-
parts on the left. Moreover, election gains by parties on the radical right (i.e. beyond the
centre-right Christian Democrats and liberal parties) are also disproportionate to the
actual population distributions of citizens who identify on radical left and radical right
(Bennett et al., 2017). Detailing the reasons for this electoral imbalance on the left, or the
differences in media use habits, is beyond our space limit here. As for the right, however,
we can point to the emotional resonance and convergence of radical right discourses
blending nationalism, anti-globalism, racism, welfare nationalism, anti-immigrant and
refugee themes, and the need for strong leadership and order.
Mainstream communication research has largely settled on populism as an easy catch-
all reference for many of these developments. However, analyses of populism often miss
how much deeper and more elaborate these intellectual formulations go beyond simple
hostility towards elites. Some frameworks for populist communication do, of course,
include discussions of exclusionary social discourses about race or refugees (Reinemann
et al., 2017). However, there is little consensus about whether to include exclusionary
discourses in standard definitions or research designs with the result that the study of
populism has become mired in poorly defined concepts and methods. For example, many
studies of so-called ‘thin’ (i.e. anti-elite) populism persist in finding greater balance
between left and right populism, begging the question of why the radical right has grown
larger and become better organized than the corresponding left. However, as one drills
down beyond thin populism and into layers of racism, nationalism, anti-globalism,
restrictions on the press, social exclusion (immigrants, refugees), and other topics, it
becomes clear that the underlying issues go far beyond mere anger at elites. What the
focus on populism generally misses are these deeper political agendas and the breaches
132 European Journal of Communication 33(2)
with basic democratic values and communication processes. In the next section, we
examine the defining elements of the emerging disinformation order that supports the
rise of the radical right.
Identifying the elements of the disinformation order
One obvious focus for research in this area is to examine the strategic uses of disinforma-
tion campaigns by parties and politicians seeking to build movements and advance elec-
toral goals by creating alternative information systems that block the mainstream press
and provide followers with emotionally satisfying beliefs around which they can organ-
ize. Preliminary research suggests that alt-right information networks operate differently
in different nations, sometimes organized by political parties, as in Austria and Hungary,
while other cases center around nationalist culture sites and social media networks, as
documented by Bounegru at al. (2017). Subsequent research shows the interesting strug-
gles between extreme movement activists and more strategic party officials in nations
such as Finland, Italy and the United States, as summarized by Bennett et al. (2017).
Beyond national-level mobilization of movements, parties and election campaigns, a
second dimension of the disinformation order is the targeting of domestic political pro-
cesses, parties and politicians by foreign agents and governments as a growing form of
strategic information warfare. Strategic efforts to insert propaganda and partisan infor-
mation into the domestic communication of other nations prey upon the contemporary
ennui and anger that accompanies the hollowing out of mainstream institutions of the
state and society (Mishra, 2017). For example, Russian hybrid warfare measures now
include coordinated efforts by troll factories, hackers and bots to disrupt democratic
processes from elections, to legislative communication, to public discussions of issues
(Pomerantsev, 2014). Such activities have been reported in different contexts in the
United Kingdom, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United States,
among other nations. Various national case studies of ‘computational propaganda’ (2017)
are now available from a team led by Phil Howard at Oxford University.
Scholars have associated such forms of disinformation more commonly with authori-
tarian regimes such as China and Russia, among others. In China, over 2 million persons
(the wumao dang or 50 cent party) are paid a modest amount to post comments on social
media. Collectively, approximately 448 million phony comments are posed by the
wumao dang each year (King et al., 2017; Phillips, 2016). In Russia, the ‘St Petersburg
troll factory’ is actually a company called the Internet Research Agency, one of several
Russian firms that train and pay trolls. In 2013, the troll factory employed about 600
people and had an estimated annual budget of US$10 million (Bugorkova, 2015). Trolls
were expected to post on news articles 50 times a day. Others had to maintain six
Facebook accounts and publish at least three posts daily. Twitter trolls were required to
have at least 10 accounts and tweet at least 50 times daily on each. All were assigned
specific targets and goals for the number of followers they needed to attract (Benedictus,
2016). In 2018, indictments of 13 Russians by U.S. special prosecutor Robert Mueller
further documented the extent of these operations (BBC News 2018).
Beyond introducing disinformation into its own domestic politics, part of the Russian
operation is geostrategic. The Russian state is pushing back against the pressure of North
Bennett and Livingston 133
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion and the West’s reaction to the Russian
annexation of Crimea and interference in Ukraine, among other issues. According to US
intelligence agencies, Fancy Bear, a Russian cyber-espionage group, hacked the servers
used by the Democratic Party and released emails to WikiLeaks that were damaging to
Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Fancy Bear also broke into computers at the Bundestag in
Berlin (Bota, 2017). In the Netherlands, a referendum on a trade agreement with Ukraine
(Higgins, 2017) was subject to a trolling campaign built around a fake community of
Ukrainians said to be living in exile in the Netherlands. In fact, they were Russian trolls
posing as Ukrainians. In February 2017, Norway said that Russia-linked hackers had
attacked the Labor Party, the defence and foreign ministries and the security service
themselves (BBC News, 2017). Similar stories have emerged about Russian trolling in
France, the United Kingdom and Germany (The Economist, 2017). Reminiscent of
Horowitz’s film about Sweden at the opening of this article, the German-language Russia
Today (RT) and Sputnik served up false accounts of a Russian–German teenager named
‘Lisa’ who it said was raped by Muslim migrants in Berlin (Deardon, 2017). German
police disconfirmed the story.
This chaotic mix of disinformation is rendered even more challenging to study due to
the ranks of apolitical disinformation entrepreneurs producing fake news to make money
in the booming ‘attention economy’ of online media. Many of these fake stories circulate
widely and become grist for alt-right media commentary and elaboration. A study of fake
and ‘real’ news on Facebook during the 2016 US election showed that the top 20 fake
stories drew more engagement than the top real news stories by a margin of 8.7–7.3 mil-
lion, measured by shares, reactions and comments. Moreover, the fake stories gained
greater engagement in the final months before the election and engagement with real
news declined. The stories that drew the most engagement were either anti-Clinton or
pro Trump, including a highly circulated story claiming that The Pope had endorsed
Trump. In addition, over 100 political websites, mostly promoting Trump were traced to
locations in Macedonia. Much of the traffic to those and other fake news sites were
driven by stories circulating on Facebook (Silverman, 2016). While they may seem to be
isolated, the broad circulation of many of these fake stories is likely due to being picked
up and spread by partisan sites and bots, echoed many times over by social media
To its credit, Facebook has conducted an internal study of this problem and deter-
mined that many forms of disinformation were operating in its networks of 2 billion
users, making these problems both national and international in scope (Weedon et al.,
2017). The Facebook report noted that the term fake news implies too narrow a view of
the larger problems. Instead, the focus was placed on disinformation as the key problem,
noting that disinformation is intentional, often strategic (targeting particular demograph-
ics) and may encompass both fake stories and coordinated efforts from both real and fake
accounts to engage particular audiences. We provisionally adopt the official Facebook
statement on disinformation as a reasonable operationalization that expands upon our
opening definition:
Disinformation Inaccurate or manipulated information content that is spread intentionally.
This can include false news, or it can involve more subtle methods such as false flag operations,
134 European Journal of Communication 33(2)
feeding inaccurate quotes or stories to innocent intermediaries, or knowingly amplifying biased
or misleading information. Disinformation is distinct from misinformation, which is the
inadvertent or unintentional spread of inaccurate information without malicious intent. (Weedon
et al., 2017: 5)
The reach of social media, along with the difficulties policing it, enable political agents
to reach vast national and international audiences with strategic ‘Information Operations’
defined as the following: ‘Actions taken by governments or non-state actors to distort
domestic or foreign political sentiment, most frequently to achieve a strategic or geopo-
litical outcome’. (Weedon et al., 2017: 5). Unfortunately, Facebook’s data are proprie-
tary, resulting in the prospect of the company policing itself. Facebook, along with many
media companies that inadvertently spread disinformation, faces challenging decisions
about weeding disinformation from a broad spectrum of political discourses without
damaging free speech, customer relations and business models.
Given the daunting mix of institutional decline, public sphere disruptions, and the
growing attacks on journalism and enlightenment values, it may be that we have entered
a ‘post-truth’ order (Harsin, 2015). If so, democracies based on norms of debate, delib-
eration, compromise and reason will not fare well. Clearly, not all nations face the same
degree of media disruption, but press/politics research and political communication more
generally need to address these issues beyond producing more work on populist com-
munication that misses the underlying issues and the depth of democratic disorder.
One may take some comfort that the disarray across the democracies today is not as
ominously patterned as the fascist movements that brought on the earlier collapse of
democratic order in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. However, it nevertheless seems wor-
risome that no democratic nation appears immune from communication breakdowns in
which sources from within and without spread disinformation that disrupts once more
authoritative information flows from government officials through the mainstream press
to publics. Indeed, it may be a sign of the times that the first international centre for
‘countering hybrid threats’ has been established in Finland in cooperation with NATO
and eight other nations, a development that was officially ‘welcomed’ by the EU (2017).
In the emerging vernacular, ‘hybrid threats’ may arise from state and non-state actors and
include hacking, financial manipulation, currency destabilization or money laundering,
and disinformation campaigns ‘using social media to control the political narrative or to
radicalize, recruit, and direct proxy actors …’ (European Commission, 2016).
Research on the production of disinformation and its effects in democracies is cur-
rently surging, but the agenda and frameworks are not clear, and links to more conven-
tional political communication research need to be forged. One obvious direction
following from our argument involves identifying the characteristics of disinformation in
different societies, noting where similar factors are in play and where important national
differences exist. Another area for research is to put disinformation in broader political
context, both domestic and foreign. In some nations, disinformation is far from a random
or marginal problem, as it is linked to political funders, think tanks, heavily trafficked
Bennett and Livingston 135
media, movements and parties. These contextual patterns are important to identify. In
addition, foreign interventions into national affairs have become a clear danger to the
integrity of political processes and the coherence of the communication that defines
them. Studying the operations of hackers, trolls and bots should become a more central
area of political communication research.
Beyond these obvious areas for future research, we also suggest developing better
perspectives on the nature of the problem. Much of our argument points to looking less
at isolated examples of ‘fake news’ and paying more attention to how they and other
disruptive processes fit into larger ‘disinformation orders’. Part of this broadening of
perspective is to resist easy efforts to make the problem go away by fact-checking initia-
tives and educating citizens about the perils of fake news. Many citizens actively seek
such information in order to support identities and political activities that stem from
emotional and material dislocations from the modern national and global institutional
orders. What appears from the outside to be false information may actually engage
deeper emotional truths for members of rising movements that wilfully defy reason. The
intention is often to create irreparable breaches in democratic public spheres that have
traditionally been based on enlightenment values and reasoned debate.
Once established among sizable enough populations, these alternative information
systems can further threaten the centrist democratic order, as witnessed, for example, in
the Brexit campaign, the election and the subsequent presidential communications of
Donald Trump, the more general rise of radical right in many nations. These develop-
ments have been associated with the spread of violence and hate crimes against refugees,
and religious and ethnic minorities in many nations. As radical movements and parties
rise in power, disinformation and fake news become part of communication strategies for
attacking and destabilizing opponents, and for establishing new ‘illiberal’ modes of
All of these developments suggest the need to revise political communication theory
and scholarship to problematize dominant assumptions about the coherence and func-
tionality of communication flows between institutional actors, the media and publics.
This shift in thinking about the scope and coherence of public communication entails
nothing short of rethinking prevailing assumptions about the unity and inclusiveness of
democratic public spheres (Bennett and Pfetsch, in press). Finally, we urge colleagues in
the field to consider ways in which normative perspectives may be developed to assess
the levels of disinformation and democratic disruption in different societies. Perhaps,
political communication can recommend ways of restoring public engagement with
political institutions that better represent citizens and meet their information needs.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship and/or publication of this
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