Disinformation: sources, spread and impact

29 Apr 2024 11:48 AM

This briefing explains how and why disinformation is spread. It evaluates real-world impact and outlines counter-initiatives and policy considerations.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.58248/PN719  


Disinformation is defined as the deliberate spread of false and/or misleading content. It is distinguished from misinformation which refers to the accidental spread. However, this distinction can be difficult to identify in practice.  Several national and international organisations, including the UK Government and the United Nations, have identified disinformation as high risk, due to its potential to promote social unrest, undermine democratic elections, and aggravate political polarisation.  

Disinformation is not new but advances in technology and global connectivity have increased its production and dissemination. It can stem from multiple sources, both foreign and domestic, and frequently spreads through a complicated network of online and offline spaces.    

Despite its high priority on global risk registers, there is mixed evidence on the prevalence of disinformation and its potential impact on people’s behaviour. There is also disagreement on the best way to mitigate the potential harms of disinformation, with a need to balance regulation and freedom of expression.  

Key Messages 


POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:   

Members of the POST Board* 

Department of Science, Innovation & Technology (DSIT) 

Ministry of Defence* 

Home Office 

Cabinet Office  


Dr Sacha Altay, University of Zurich* 

Professor Tom Buchanan, University of Westminster* 

Professor Joanna Burkhardt, University of Rhode Island Libraries* 

Dr Thomas Colley, King’s College London* 

Mariano delli Santi, Open Rights Group 

Angie Drobnic Holan, International Fact-Checking Network 

Scott Hale, Meedan 

Todd Helmus, RAND Corporation 

Eliot Higgins, Bellingcat 

Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, University of Oxford 

Dr Mark Knights, University of Warwick 

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, University of Bristol* 

Eva Maitland, Newsguard* 

Gwenda Nielen, Tilt Studio 

Magda Osman Principal Research Associate in Basic and Applied Decision Making, Cambridge Judge Business School, University of Cambridge* 

Henry Parker, Logically* 

Olga Robinson, BBC 

Glen Tarman, Full Fact 

Dr Toni van der Meer, University of Amsterdam 

*denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing.

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