2023 APSA Annual Meeting Theme Statement:
Rights and Responsibilities in an Age of Mis- and Disinformation
APSA President-Elect: Lisa Martin, Professor of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Conference Program Co-Chairs: Zoltán Búzás, Associate Professor of Global Affairs, University of Notre Dame and Felicity Vabulas, Associate Professor of International Studies, Pepperdine University
Political communication can be fraught with mis- and disinformation that can skew the political landscape and impact the attitudes and actions of political actors. Misinformation broadly refers to disseminating false, misleading, or unsubstantiated information, without intent to deceive. Disinformation goes further to deliberately mislead with biased information, manipulated facts, or propaganda. Both can include fake news, conspiracy theories, and rumors, and be spread by ordinary individuals, influencers, governments, public-relations firms, internet bots, or human-curated fake social media accounts.
Mis- and disinformation are not new, but these phenomena are becoming increasingly prevalent and problematic across the world. Advances in communication technologies mean that they can spread faster and wider than fact-based information. Polarized publics are especially eager consumers. Further innovation is producing “deep fakes” that make the distinction between fakes and facts even harder.
On one hand, spreading information–whether false or true–can be expressed in the terminology of rights. Efforts to address mis- and disinformation take place in the context of the internationally recognized human rights of freedom of thought and expression. Engaging in mis- and disinformation can be seen as exercising the right to freedom of thought and speech. In this vein, limiting or regulating information flows can be portrayed as overstepping or infringing upon these rights and controlling people’s actions. Governments may use tackling mis- and disinformation to justify infringing on these rights. At the extreme, critics have linked information-monitoring to the kinds of oppression we see from authoritarian governments.
On the other hand, exercising the right to freedom of expression without embracing responsibility for providing accurate, evidence-based, and truthful information, hurts trust as well as a number of rights other than free speech. Covid-19 related misinformation, for example, undercuts the right to health. Election-related disinformation can corrode the right to free and fair elections by discouraging voting, eroding trust in democratic norms, and corrupting institutions. Falsehoods that amplify hatred against racial and ethnic, religious, or political minorities violate the right to non-discrimination, freedom of religion, and even self-determination. In this vein, we could perhaps have a right to truth that supersedes the “right” to lie. Nonetheless, even apparent attempts to fight mis- and disinformation could be employed against political opponents, to repress critical journalists’ freedom of the press and to hurt markets.
The theme for the 2023 APSA Annual Meeting will focus on our rights and responsibilities–both as citizens and as political science researchers and educators–in a world of mis- and disinformation. Given the potentially pernicious and polarizing effects of mis- and disinformation, how can we conceive of and undertake helpful research and scholarship? More specifically, how can we rethink complex governance structures and grapple with the reality of power dynamics in an accurate and critical way, while taking a diversity of voices, perspectives and methodological approaches into consideration? As mis- and disinformation blur the lines between individuals, governments, and big tech, we stand to see fundamental political circumstances shift. For example, the Russian invasion of Ukraine underscores the changing nature of information on the battlefield; our reliance on satellite technology reveals key vulnerabilities for the future of political communication and how we disseminate “the truth,” but also how we frame, persuade, and argue; and democratic backsliding across the world challenges citizens’ abilities to be empowered with authentic information and veracity in order to protest–another key human right. Political scientists across subfields and methodological orientations need to be a key part of examining these phenomena to provide theoretical and evidence-based insight on the potential impact of dis-information and misinformation upon political behavior, attitudes, institutions and rights and responsibilities in the 21st century.
In keeping with APSA’s goals of and respect for diversity, equity, inclusion and access throughout the profession, this theme statement recognizes the importance and value of multiplicity and diversity in methodological approach and interdisciplinarity and welcomes contributions and engagement from scholars with wide-ranging research perspectives.