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These 5 disinformation studies changed the way we think about fake news

From pseudoscience peddlers to investigations into QAnon, here's our round-up of the most groundbreaking disinformation research

Disinformation has become a prominent, even dominant component of every political crisis. Fabricated images, AI bot, and troll farms make the headlines today and struggling to understand disinformation’s impacts has become an essential topic of inquiry.

From polling, data research or scientific analysis, here are some of the most important recent studies about disinformation.

1) Remember the fake news campaign that brought disinformation into the mainstream discussion? Yes, that one: Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. This research from 2018 by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and Graphika, a leading computer network analysis firm, for the United States Senate was, at the time, the most comprehensive analysis of Russian meddling. The researchers analyzed millions of posts and reactions online and determined how the notorious troll farm, the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency, tailored different messages to galvanize individual Trump supporters and discourage non-supporters from casting votes at all. The focus had been on Facebook and Twitter; these researchers unraveled how the Internet Research Agency used YouTube in their campaign and also uncovered their sloppiness, like cases of them paying for political ads with Russian rubles.

2) How were scientists in different disciplines discussing fake news before disinformation went literally everywhere? In 2018, as fake news became a catch-all buzz term, a group of 16 political scientists, psychologists, computer scientists, media experts, historians, and journalists led by Harvard professors David Lazer and Matthew Baum teamed up to publish a paper about the science of fake news, looking at how it works on an individual and societal level.

3) In 2020 EU DisinfoLab published Indian Chronicles, an exhaustive research project uncovering a 15-year long international pro-India and anti-Pakistan disinformation campaign run by the New Delhi-based Srivastava Group, mainly targeting the UN and EU. Fake and “resurrected” think tanks and NGOs lobbied the European Parliament, spoke at sessions, and convinced parliamentarians to write pro-India and anti-Pakistan op-eds for over 750 of their fake media outlets across 119 countries. Reportedly, ANI, South Asia’s leading news agency, played a major role in spreading content from these websites, giving them credibility. Srivastava Group was also the organizer of controversial trips to Kashmir in 2019, when a couple dozen far-right European Parliamentarians visited the Indian-controlled disputed regions in Kashmir.

4) In 2020 QAnon, a conspiracy theory about how a global child trafficking ring is ruling the world, conquered every other outlandish conspiracy theory and went global. It infiltrated politics, public health, yoga groups, the hip-hop scene and disrupted the personal lives of thousands of people in the U.S. and abroad. Huge numbers of disinformation stories in the past year had something to do with QAnon, and this poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core published last May made clear just how far QAnon has traveled. In the U.S. alone, 30 million people believe at least some QAnon tenets, ranking QAnon next to major religions.

5) Last spring, amid Covid-19 vaccine rollouts, an international non-profit research organization, The Center for Countering Digital Hate, investigated Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for harmful, Covid-19 related disinformation. They uncovered the “Disinformation Dozen” —  the influencers who accounted for 65% of Covid-19 related misinformation online. The list includes notorious anti-vaccine campaigners like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., alternative medicine practitioners like Christiane Northrup and the leading pseudoscientific influencer-physician Joseph Mercola. Mercola, who has been profiting from his misinformation, also made our list of top business owners profiting off bad science. “He will continue to express his professional opinions and defend his freedom of speech,” his representative told Coda when approached for a comment.

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