Comparative Research on Disinformation

Outcomes of a May 30 meeting between German and Canadian scholars


Mutual learning between democracies

The proliferation of disinformation and the corrosive effect it has on democratic systems of government have generated a growing field of research in liberal democracies.  This has created a wealth of learning that pro-democracy actors across the world can draw from in our respective efforts to build the resilience of democratic systems.

But how comparable are disinformation campaigns in countries with different languages, political cultures, and usage patterns for the digital communications technologies in which political life now occurs?  How might we generate comparisons useful enough to drive policy change?

As part of our efforts to support mutual learning between democracies, the Canadian International Council and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation of Canada brought together experts on disinformation from both Germany and Canada in Toronto on May 30.

A first case study: How malign actors use disinformation to distort public debates on migration

Our work begins with a 2022 study by Dr. Ulrike Klinger and other European researchers which identified specific techniques by which German extremist movements distorted public debate over migration using false information.   In April 2023, the CIC and KAS Canada commissioned the Canadian Network for Information and Security (CANIS) to replicate the study in the Canadian context focused on the same issue, in the same time period and using the same platforms.

After several weeks examining the available data, CANIS reported that it found few anti-immigration messages in Canadian social media during the same time frame in 2018. This rhetoric increased the following year, however, coincident with the Canadian federal election.  When the timeframe is adjusted, sufficient data is available for comparison and it confirms that indeed some of the same techniques used by German extremists are present in the Canadian debate.  The outcome was different, since anti-migration messages find a less welcoming environment in Canada. But the research so far suggests that there are similarities in how disinformation is spread in both German and Canadian media environments. Both research teams noted the presence of “superspreaders” of disinformation. Both studies noted the relationship between far-right parties and disinformation surrounding migration (the AfD in Germany, and PPC in Canada), as well as the transnational nature of disinformation (far-right actors in Austria influenced disinformation in Germany, and there is likely an American far-right effect on Canadian disinformation).

A second case study to expand mutual learning

In our discussions, we also identified another critical issue to investigate: attempts to mobilize hate through online campaigns against the LGBTQ+ community. Both Canada and Germany have seen a rise in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and disinformation (e.g., the conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia). This worrisome trend not only threatens citizens, but it likely is influenced in part by Russian disinformation campaigns. Therefore, we are investigating the landscapes of anti-LGBTQ+ disinformation in Canada and Germany, including the potential role of foreign influence on this issue.

These similarities indicate that the landscape of anti-LGBTQ disinformation may also be similar in the two countries – in which case, Canada and Germany could work together to redress this issue.

Where else is comparative research into disinformation being shared?

There is not an extensive amount of comparative research into disinformation; where it exists, it is mostly as research papers. As such, the Network for Democratic Solidarity can contribute something new to this important area of study.

There are existing institutions that conduct research that could feed into our work. Notably, the Media Ecosystems Laboratory – a joint effort by the Max Bell School and Munk School – studies the ecosystem of disinformation, with a particular focus on elections. Furthermore, Carnegie Mellon University has made the effort to bring together disinformation experts.

A proposal to create a permanent community for mutual learning on disinformation

Noting the threat that disinformation poses, we propose creating a permanent community for mutual learning on disinformation. This would be led by the Network for Democratic Solidarity, which is becoming an independent organization, and is therefore well-positioned to fill this niche. It would continue the work the CIC and KAS have done together on comparative and collaborative policy. We propose developing a dashboard of disinformation incidents as a means for mutual learning. The visual and interactive nature of dashboards makes them a valuable educational tool, and there exist promising precedents, like the DFR’s Our dashboard would identify incidents of disinformation in Canada and Germany, which would make it the only current disinformation dashboard to focus on two countries.