Part 1 – Shifting Political and Economic Winds Help Stoke Global Disinformation Growth

Combating the Rise of Global Disinformation Engines

Disinformation and propaganda efforts have been part of our human discourse for much of recorded history. Many people learn to recognize false or misleading information, but those who false claims can quickly morph their messages into new formats, making disinformation efforts harder to detect.

In recent years disinformation has become a key political and cultural challenge in the United States and across the globe. It reached astounding levels during the U.S. federal elections of 2016 and 2020, and extended new tentacles during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

This article is part of our In Depth Series – Disinformation For Hire 

Many catalysts have spurred this growth, including shifting political influence and changing global demographics. Certainly growing income inequities and fundamental religious disagreements have also played a role. But one of the biggest reasons propaganda has become increasingly powerful and far-reaching is the evolution of online tools that make disinformation cheap and easy to create, distribute and promote.

Other platforms make it easier to boost false claims through bot networks, while also gaining followers and fueling pass-along rates. (Sharing is just a click away.)

The invasion of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, and unreliable reporting on global conflicts, has placed citizen concerns about disinformation front and center in public awareness. But it remains challenging to combat this trend.

In many democratic nations, successful amplification of disinformation is viewed as an existential threat to democracy. In other countries, it may be viewed as a challenge to the authority of entrenched government.


For this article, we use the terms disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda interchangeably. But we acknowledge these words have subtle differences, which are highlighted in Figure X later in this article. For now, we loosely define these terms as information & associated communication that are partially true or fully false. They usually are biased, selective, or misleading and used to promote a particular cause or point of view.


Well-crafted propaganda often is designed to produce an emotional rather than a rational response. Instead of keeping people informed, it may suppress facts while promoting a point of view and calling on people to take action.

Modern propaganda travels under many alternative names, including false news, alternative facts, misinformation, disinformation, or, simply, opinion. Technically, each of these phrases have slightly different definitions. But in order to focus on the larger issue of global disinformation, we choose to use these terms interchangeably in this report, and to include them all under the broader umbrella of “propaganda,” a word we use most often in this article.

Producing Accurate, High-quality News is Expensive – And That’s a  Problem

The cost of subscribing to an unbiased, well-researched and well documented newspaper or magazine has become expensive. That’s not unreasonable. They have a highly trained staff to pay.

But this also means many high-quality news sites have disappeared behind paid subscriptions gateways to protect their revenues.  It also means news consumers who can’t pay for subscriptions tend to look for alternative free news sources. Propaganda producers realize this and have jumped at the opportunity.

The current saying in journalism circles is that, online, the truth is often found behind a paywall. But the lies are viewable for free. Groups who promote false narratives can be well funded, including, in some cases, funding from government intelligence agencies.

To get their message in front of news consumers, those who generate false news are quite skilled at manipulating social media posts and hot-button hashtags.

These manipulations can produce one of more alternative narratives, which, can stoke when an event occurs.  This has become a big problem for citizens globally because the false news is often meant to the target rule of law in other countries.

According to the Pew Research Center’s Journalism and media group, in March, 2019, 67% of 6,127 U.S. survey respondents said they felt some level of confusion over the accuracy of the news they read, while 50% said fabricated news and information is a very big problem for the country (even more so than violent crime, which came in at 49%).

If alternative narratives can be promoted to the point where citizens start doubting all news sources, propaganda creators can find greater success in convincing people their version of the truth is the correct one.

Because social media makes sharing messages, images and other information so easy, purveyors of false information can rely on people’s basic trust (and fact-checking laziness) to amplify their messages. Exploiting citizen trust and tendency to share information that confirms their own biases, has proven to be a great tool for spreading propaganda.

Mitigation techniques have been discussed for years and some pilot programs (such as Twitter’s crowdsources community fact-checking system – formerly Birdwatch) have shown promise at mitigating false news. But governments and private organizations are still struggling to ramp up the technology needed to fight this trend.

Before any disinformation mitigation attempt can work, it’s important to understand the modern misinformation distribution process, and the economics that drive that process.

Using Fake Social Media Accounts to Drive Traffic to Fake News Sites

Some disinformation creators have legitimate-looking news sites to post false news narratives. They then use a range of social media accounts to quote from, and drive traffic to, those news sites (while pretending these are legitimate news sources).

In the section of this document titled “The Service Providers for Hire,” we look at how third parties are offering these types of propaganda platforms. It all starts with funding, which comes from political interest groups, or foreign entities, looking to support a political narrative or to sow chaos and doubt as a way of damaging trust in an organization, an opposing political party, or a nation.

We know of one highly partisan media group that runs nearly 1,300 “local news” sites across the U.S. All the front pages have a uniform look. Many run the same highly partisan stories with slight variations to give them a local political spin. They never cover things like local business or sports. Bot networks are then used to post story links on local or national message boards – to drive readership.

Next: Part 2 – How False Information Gets Promoted to Quasi-legitimate News