Online disinformation


This Knowledge Package builds on the previous one to examine a pressing and complex challenge for freedom of expression in our modern age: the proliferation of disinformation (or so-called ‘fake news’) in the online realm. Freedom of expression is implicated by disinformation in two main ways: First, efforts to combat disinformation like removals, warning labels and suspensions may interfere with the speaker’s right to impart information and ideas and with the public’s right to receive them. The second implication for freedom of expression is broader: left unchecked, disinformation may harm public discourse in ways big and small. For instance, it injects, uncertainty and noise into debates about important issues, such as COVID-19, democratic elections, climate change and war. Disinformation also causes a decay in truth and trust which discourages the public from taking part in important democratic processes and conversations.

This Knowledge Package provides an overview of the key features of online disinformation, the efforts currently underway to address it by regulators, platforms, civil society, and users, and some broader preventive and reactive measures which may prove effective in combating the harms of disinformation without the same pitfalls for freedom of expression as takedowns, account suspensions or other forms of content moderation.

Intended learning outcomes 

After studying the materials in this Knowledge Package, you should be able to:  

  • Explain what disinformation is, the range of actors involved, and the (potential) harms it can cause;
  • Evaluate the challenges posed by disinformation for freedom of expression;
  • Describe and (critically) analyse the shifting landscape of regulatory and policy responses to disinformation, particularly within Europe, as well as (non-legal) responses, media literacy and technical interventions; and
  • Critically analyse the disruptive impact and potential harm of online disinformation.

Contents and format

This Knowledge Package starts with a blogpost which provides some necessary context to what follows. The post defines and distinguishes disinformation from other forms of ‘information disorder’, explains the varied factors that make disinformation so difficult to combat, and summarizes some of the main challenges it poses for freedom of expression.

Next up is the infographic – a portal of sorts, meant to identify the different actors involved in efforts to combat disinformation, from regulators to platforms, civil society to users. In each quadrant, indicative examples of the different kinds of initiatives that are underway are provided, from legislation to takedowns to media literacy initiatives and beyond.

A lot of critical focus to date has been on so-called ‘takedowns’ – that is, efforts to remove online disinformation (and other harmful content, like hate speech) from circulation or to prevent disinformation from circulating online. This attention makes sense: takedowns represent a serious interference with freedom of expression. And they are by no means the only tool in regulators’ or platforms’ toolkits. The video therefore looks beyond takedowns to focus on broader preventive and reactive measures – including technological and educational measures – that could play an important role in countering the harms of disinformation, without requiring its outright removal.

Finally, a reading list is provided so you can dive deeper into some of the literature, reports, studies and guidance that are referred to in – or informed the development of – this Knowledge Package.