Sarah Gibbs

“[A]ny attack on […] the concept of objective truth […] threatens in the long run every department of thought.”

George Orwell

                                     “The Prevention of Literature” (1946)


In the “post-truth” twenty-first century, our information environment is fraught. Controversies concerning “fake news” and the authority of experts shape our daily lives; fringe media attack the validity of democratic processes and COVD-19 misinformation contributes to preventable deaths and imperils public health. In the digital sphere, all sources—whether reputable or not—can appear equal. According to W. Lance Bennett and Steven Livingston in their work, The Disinformation Age: Politics, Technology, and Disruptive Communication in the United States (2020):

Democracies around the world face rising levels of disinformation. The intentional spread of falsehoods and related attacks on the rights of minorities, press freedoms, and the rule of law all challenge the basic norms and values on which institutional legitimacy and political stability depend. (p. xv)

The authority and reliability of information is no longer a strictly academic concern; the sources of disinformation are numerous and can include communications from politicians and political parties, and messaging from groups spreading conspiracy theories, attacking the “scientific evidence surrounding important issues such as climate change […] [and] [inventing] stories to inflame existing social and political conflicts” (Bennett and Livingston, 2020, p. xv). This chapter aims to equip readers with the skills they need to assess information in the world at large, whether the source is a post on social media, a report on the nightly news, or a political candidate’s speech.


After reviewing the chapter, readers will be able to:

  • Define “misinformation,” “disinformation,” and “fake news”
  • Discuss historical instances of disinformation
  • Describe the conditions that have contributed to the current boom in mis- and disinformation
  • Identify and respond effectively to disinformation and fake news, both as information consumers and engaged twenty-first-century citizens

Some portions of the text contain a section entitled “The Deep Dive.” The materials are optional readings and/or video content for those who wish to investigate a topic further.


Consider the headlines below. Which seem to be true? Don’t look it up. Just go with your gut.

“Subway bread is not bread, Irish court rules” (The Guardian; 2020)
“Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president” (Ending the Fed; 2016)
“Private Florida School Says it Will Not Employ Anyone who has Received Covid-19 Vaccine” (The Globe and Mail; 2021)
“FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apartment murder-suicide” (Denver Guardian; 2016)

Remember your answers. We’ll come back to them.