The news media and (dis)information as a foreign policy tool

This article was written by Dr Natalie Martin, School of Politics and IR, University of Nottingham
This article was published on
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The current situation in Israel-Palestine is playing out in the information sphere as well as on the ground. It comes as another reminder of how important political communication is in foreign policy as well as domestic power politics. States and other actors seek to control the international view of their actions to maximise strategic effect or maintain reputation – or both.  Such issues are plain to see in Gaza and were already a hot topic given the events in Ukraine over the past decade and the shenanigans of the Brexit campaign and election of Donald Trump. We can only expect more of the same as Gaza and Ukraine continue in conflict and both the UK and USA, amongst other places, gear up for further electoral activity over the next 12 months. None of this is new but the analogue dezinformatsiya of the Cold War has been turbocharged first by social media and now the advent of AI - into a highly effective foreign policy tool. Meanwhile the potential of the mainstream news media to continue as a dissemination route for 'disinformation' means the security jeopardy posed – and the ability to control narratives and counter narratives strategically – is increasing.

Hence, the control of information enables the control of 'truth' in any given context. It is argued here that this can be achieved by conduiting information strategically into the news eco system through the news media – both mainstream and social media – to influence strategic foreign policy narratives. In addition, it can be targeted at the news media and in particular at sections of the news media who seek to speak truth unto power. In other words, foreign policy actors – states and non-states – can funnel preferred narratives through news – and target the scrutinising reach of journalism – using disinformation, which is more accurately known as a collection of 'disordered information' types.

In fact there are three categories of 'disordered information' which can be weaponised to influence narratives strategically and discredit counter narratives. This 'disordered information' triptych is disinformation, misinformation and malinformation (Wardle and Derakhshan, 2017).  Disinformation is false and intended to deceive or do harm in some way; misinformation is also false but is spread inadvertently – without intent. Malinformation is true but is spread with intent to discredit or delegitimise. A further category could be true but bland, non-challenging, information which is harmful by what it doesn’t say. Instead, it fills a space which could have moved beyond just news information into the scrutinising speaking-truth-unto-power territory of journalism.

Such disordered information is the tool of numerous existing conceptual frameworks concerning weaponised information from “propaganda” (Briant 2015), and strategic narratives (Roselle et al 2014), to hybrid warfare (Renz 2016), sharp power (Walker 2017), information warfare (Seib 2020) and malign information influence (Wagnsson 2023). They all encompass the concept of disordered information as a foreign policy tool in which strategic gain can be made out of news which is fake and truth which is nebulous (Bolt 2021).

The ability to control the 'news' – the general output of mainstream and social media news outlets – enables actors to influence what is known and offers the potential to destabilise wider politics. Equally the ability to discredit journalism – news which speaks truth unto power – further enables them to influence the counter narrative and maintain their strategic view of 'truth'.  Such conduiting of disordered information as 'news' can be done through social media, client journalists in social and mainstream news media - or public diplomacy news outlets such as RT, TRT, Press TV which present themselves as plural liberal mainstream news organisations. Similarly, the targeting of journalism with disordered information – including through the conduits – seeks to undermine the credibility of journalists and their work, deter others from following suit – and in some case, justify their repression (or worse).

Hence the preferred narrative may be promoted by preferred outlets and the counter narrative suppressed using disordered information. This could be covertly gathered kompromat which is true but malign (and therefore malinformation).  Similarly, it could be the malign implication of ethnicity, gender, or sexuality which is true but within a given societal context becomes discrediting (also malinformation).  Alternatively, there could be manufactured examples of kompromat or the existing societal fissures of race and gender etc which are disinformation (becoming misinformation if they are inadvertently shared).  Disinformation also encompasses the use of spurious criminal and civil legal claims (including so called SLAPP prosecutions) which serve as disinformation to undermine journalistic endeavour by alleging criminal or terrorist associations – or libellous and inaccurate content.

The combined effect of the ability to control narratives and counter narratives in this way – or at least attempt to – is the ability to influence what is known about a given subject in a time and space. However, it also contributes to the undermining of general confidence in the news to provide 'true' information. Even when the news is credible, its credibility is called into question.  Both seeking to create alternative 'truth', and undermine belief in any kind truth, can be used as foreign policy tools and the Israel/Palestine issue has brought this into sharp focus once again.

The advent of 'deep fake' audiovisual capability adds an extra dimension which keeps most security experts - and news editors - awake at night. Whilst the skills of OSINT organisations such as Bellingcat – and the fact checking departments of major news outlets – can counteract these materials, deep fakes can be hard to spot particularly when working against the pressures of the 24 news cycle. Therefore, it is vital that news outlets and their journalists are aware of how disordered information can be conduited through their work and targeted at their work in the battle for 'truth'.

Hence there is a need for ongoing understanding of the role of news media in weaponised and disordered information within power hierarchies, including in foreign policy scenarios. Such information is increasingly prevalent – and convincing. This can introduce false and other harmful narratives and it can undermine the credibility of news as a whole. For all these reasons the study of media and politics is vital to understanding international politics and for this reason an interdisciplinary centre focussing on media, politics and communications research has been established at the University of Nottingham. The Centre for Media, Politics and Communication Research will draw insights from the faculties of arts and social sciences and bring in experts from other parts of the university. There is a lot of work to do.

Find out more about the Centre for Media, Politics and Communication Research.

Reference list

Bolt N (2021) Strategic Communications and Disinformation in the Early 21st Century  Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies Research Paper No. RSC_PP_12, Available at SSRN:

Briant E (2015) Propaganda and Counterterrorism: Strategies for Global Change. Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Renz B (2016) Russia and 'hybrid Warfare'. Contemporary politics 22 (3): 283–300.

Roselle L, Miskimmon A and O’Loughlin B (2014) Strategic Narrative: A New Means to Understand Soft Power. Media, War & Conflict, 7(1): 70-84.

Seib P (2021) Information at War: Journalism, Disinformation and Modern Warfare. 1st Ed. London: Polity.

Wagnsson C (2023) The Paperboys of Russian Messaging: RT/Sputnik Audiences as Vehicles for Malign Information Influence. Information, communication & society 26 (9): 1849–1867.

Walker C (2018). What Is "Sharp Power"? Journal of Democracy, 29(3): 9-23.

Wardle C and Derakhshan H (2017) Information Disorder Toward an Interdisciplinary Framework for Research and Policymaking. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.