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Theorising digital disinformation in international relations


This paper provides an assessment of the ability of different international relations theories to grasp modern uses of international digital disinformation. More specifically, the paper argues that E. H. Carr’s notion of propaganda, John J. Mearsheimer’s typology of lies and Joseph Nye’s conceptualisation of public diplomacy all offer useful theoretical lenses through which we can advance our understanding of international digital disinformation. Their added value is demonstrated by applying these three theoretical perspectives to three ‘prototype cases’ of modern international digital disinformation. The paper concludes that the three theoretical perspectives make new aspects of international digital disinformation intelligible, including the underlying motives for using digital disinformation. However, there still remains a space for a more detailed theoretical account of digital disinformation and its use in modern international relations.

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  1. The girl also admitted later that she had lied about the incident (Knight 2016).

  2. Nye first defined the concept of soft power in 1990 as a second aspect of power ‘which occurs when one country get other countries to want what it wants’ (Nye 1990, p. 166). Later, he has specified that increased soft power is achieved ‘through attraction rather than coercion or payment’ (Nye 2008, p. 94).

  3. This distinction can also be found in the literature on information sciences (see, for example, Fetzer 2004). The distinction has, due to the inherently philosophical question of ‘what truth is’, been massively debated (see, for example, Stahl 2006).

  4. These pages are located from the e-book version purchased via iBooks (page numbers may vary according to size of window open on the computer reading the book).


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Correspondence to Christina la Cour.

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la Cour, C. Theorising digital disinformation in international relations. Int Polit 57, 704–723 (2020).

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  • Disinformation
  • Propaganda
  • Lies
  • Public diplomacy
  • IR theory