Misinformation has several connected aspects that are especially pertinent to the discussion of media systems analysis. There are a variety and complex co-mingling of actors, multiplicity of communication channels, and multiplication of misinformation opportunities in the digital age. Even the most state-directed disinformation today usually involves a complex mix of state actors, para-state actors, and supporting actors whose directedness may be attenuated to untraceability or be ‘self-generated’ in motivation. According to the EU Stratcomm Taskforce’s (Medium 2017) analysis of Russian propaganda:
Not only (are) big media outlets like Russia Today or Sputnik . . . deployed, but also seemingly marginal sources, like fringe websites, blog sites and Facebook pages. Trolls are deployed not only to amplify disinformation messages but to bully those . . . brave enough to oppose them. And the network goes wider: NGOs and “GONGOs” (government organised NGOs); Russian government representatives; and other proKremlin mouthpieces in Europe, often on the far-right and far left. In all, literally thousands of channels are used to spread pro-Kremlin dis-information, all creating an impression of seemingly independent sources confirming each other’s message.
Silverman (2015, 15) describes a misinformation ecosystem with three key actors: official sources of propaganda, fake news websites, and individual hoaxters. To these can be added the full range of human and non-human intermediaries acting between communication sources and those accessing communications. This includes public relations and marketing agencies, lobbyists, and overt or covert campaigners, all illustrated by the disgraced, and subsequently disbanded, Bell Pottinger’s disinformation campaign to foment racial polarisation in South Africa on behalf of the Gupta business family. It also includes the non-human actants arising from human-computer interaction, from automated buying and selling of programmatic advertising to social bots creating the illusion of popularity for social media content, to the algorithms shaping the selection, presentation, and ordering of circulating stories (Bayer 2019, 33—34). The range of actors and their interconnections makes for a more complex mapping of political actors and communications than is common in media systems analyses. Yet government agencies and political parties remain key actors, with one study of computational propaganda finding these actors were using social media to manipulate public opinion domestically in 48 countries studied, across democracies and dictatorships alike (Bradshaw and Howard 2018).
Misinformation fits well with some core elements of media systems analysis. There are significant ‘vertical’ dimensions linking the national political sphere, regulation, media, and publics. Much political ‘information disorder’is designed to influence electorates, those with voting rights in respect of a territorially defined authority. There are strong links between voters and national media. A range of individual and institutional actors seek to influence national policies or are stakeholders whose actions or attitudes may influence policies. Finally, nonnational actors with agendas to influence domestic politics provide much of the recent policy and research focus, including Russian and Chinese state and para-state misinformation and cyber-attacks (Bayer 2019).
Misinformation involves both ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ processes and flows; it occurs in the gaps identified by critiques of media systems analyses. However, while those critiques provide useful resources, they have rarely offered explicit strategies to reincorporate misinformation. In fact, misinformation has not been a strong theme across media systems analysis. While that may be explained, in part, by the rapid growth in attention to ‘fake news’phenomena from 2016, the neglect of the longer histories of information disorder in the service of power is a more significant and revealing omission. While communication and power are major themes for Hallin and Mancini (2004), there is no index entry on misinformation or related terms. It is therefore necessary to draw on resources beyond those that more commonly populate media systems analysis.
Misinformation and media systems: approaches and resources
The first key resource emanates from beyond academia, in the work of non-governmental organisations measuring freedom of expression, the treatment of journalists, media plurality, and other metrics. These offer a global ranking of countries and commonly identify laws and policies affecting reporting, media ownership and plurality indicators, and forms of ‘interference’ in media autonomy by state, political actors, media owners, and commercial interests. Various NGOs offer indexes of media freedom, inflected by normative values, such as the US-headquartered Freedom House, which traditionally privileged commercial non-state media. Others include Reporters sans Frontières (France), Article 19, and Index on Censorship (UK), as well as trade union groupings such as the International Federation of Journalists. Reporters sans Frontières’ (2020) World Press Freedom index ranks lowest states such as North Korea, China, the Philippines, Egypt, and Iraq, which denied the extent of the COVID-19 outbreak amongst their populations, harassed journalists, and suppressed scientific information.
References to these well-established NGO resources is surprisingly rare across media systems literature. However, there are limitations to these resources too. Their focus is on contemporary actions and not historical dimensions, they concentrate on state agency, and their contestable criteria produce reductive labels such as Freedom House’s tripartite classification of free, partly free, and not free. Such rankings tend to exonerate those marked ‘free’, to a degree that critical media scholars challenge (Curran 2011; Hardy 2014), and condemn those found wanting, yet in doing so, risk smoothing over the complexity and contradictions in performance. While many would agree on the qualities assessed, based on core human rights principles and values and the importance for policy action of doing so, there are many contexts in which policy action is aided by narrower comparability. Finally, the normativity that shapes all such measurements, while valuable and defensible, also needs to be subjected to much greater reflexivity and review. Media systems analysis can seek to examine broader interconnections than media freedom indexes and do so across synchronic and diachronic axes.