Deconstructing Disinformation

In recent months–in relation to unprecedented public health measures taken by government to manage the COVID-19 pandemic–misinformation and disinformation have amplified exponentially on social media creating confusion, conflict and undermining community. This page hosts a series of useful resources to help social workers, community workers and social work educators combat misinformation and disinformation.

The current COVID-19 vaccination debate is often framed in terms of the legitimacy or not of the government mandates. However, underlying the debate about mandates are virulent campaigns of misinformation and disinformation that were successful in leading some people to distrust vaccines, health expertise and government. Actors in these campaigns used the same flawed techniques as others who deny scientific consensus in relation to a range of issues including climate change, harms from smoking, the benefits of seat-belt wearing, the “rights” of parents to smack children, assisted dying and a host of other policies.

As social workers committed to progressive policies, critical thinking and community safety it has become urgent that we learn to protect ourselves, our colleagues, our whānau and our communities from disinformation. Luckily there are now a range of evidence-informed approaches that can help us do that. We include a curated list of resources below.

The Resources

The first resource is an excellent collection of evidence-informed materials designed to inoculate people against misinformation. If you read nothing else, read this.

Ryan, K. (2022, March 4). Living in the age of disinformation. Nine to Noon: Radio NZ.

Diethelm, P., & McKee, M. (2009). Denialism: What is it and how should scientists respond? European Journal of Public Health, 19(1), 2–4.

This is an early account of the five characteristics or approaches taken by actors who seek to deny scientific consensus and introduce misinformation or disinformation. This work led eventually to the FLICC taxonomy of techniques of science denial that features in the next resource.

Cook, J. (2020). A history of FLICC: The five techniques of science denial. Skeptical Science: Getting Skeptical about Global Warming Skepticism.

Although developed in the context of climate change denial this resource is easily relatable to other contexts including the COVID-19 vaccine. It includes a detailed description of all of the main disinformation techniques (with examples) and three excellent video explainers.

Ireton, C., & Posetti, J. (2018). Journalism, ‘fake news’ & disinformation: Handbook for journalism education and training. UNESCO.

This is an excellent teaching resource aimed at journalists that could easily be adapted for use in social work and community education.

Soar, M., Smith, V. L., Dentith, M. R. X., Barnett, D., Hannah, K., Riva, V. D., & Sporle, A. (2020). Evaluating the infodemic: assessing the prevalence and nature of COVID- 19 unreliable and untrustworthy information in Aotearoa New Zealand ’ social media, January-August 2020.

A report by Te Pūnaha Matatini on COVID-19 disinformation in Aotearoa.

Hannah, K., Hattotuwa, S., & Taylor, K. (2021). Working Paper: Mis- and disinformation in Aotearoa New Zealand from 17 August to 5 November 2021. November, 1–10.

The second report by Te Pūnaha Matatini on COVID-19 disinformation in Aotearoa.

Cornell University Library. (2022). Fake news, propaganda, and disinformation: Learning to critically evaluate media sources.

An extensive list of resources (mostly US based) on the broader issue of critical thinking and “fake news”.

Baker, S. A., & Walsh, M. J. (2022). ‘A mother’s intuition: it’s real and we have to believe in it’: how the maternal is used to promote vaccine refusal on Instagram. Information Communication and Society, 0(0), 1–18.

A study of the ways in which anti-vaccine influencers strategically target mothers on social media to achieve visibility, attention and support for their cause.

Persily, N., & Tucker, J. A. (Eds.). (2020). Social media and democracy: The state of the field and prospects for reform. Cambridge University Press.

An open access, edited textbook on the challenges that social media, and disinformation, present for democratic deliberation and decision-making.

Lewandowsky, S., & Cook, J. (2020). The conspiracy theory handbook. 1–12.

Explains why conspiracy theories are so popular, how to identify the traits of conspiratorial thinking and what are effective response strategies.