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Disinformation and misinformation triangle: A conceptual model for “fake news” epidemic, causal factors and interventions

Victoria L. Rubin (Language and Information Technology Research Lab (LiT.RL), Faculty of Information and Media Studies, University of Western Ontario, London, Canada)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 23 August 2019

Issue publication date: 12 September 2019




The purpose of this paper is to treat disinformation and misinformation (intentionally deceptive and unintentionally inaccurate misleading information, respectively) as a socio-cultural technology-enabled epidemic in digital news, propagated via social media.


The proposed disinformation and misinformation triangle is a conceptual model that identifies the three minimal causal factors occurring simultaneously to facilitate the spread of the epidemic at the societal level.


Following the epidemiological disease triangle model, the three interacting causal factors are translated into the digital news context: the virulent pathogens are falsifications, clickbait, satirical “fakes” and other deceptive or misleading news content; the susceptible hosts are information-overloaded, time-pressed news readers lacking media literacy skills; and the conducive environments are polluted poorly regulated social media platforms that propagate and encourage the spread of various “fakes.”


The three types of interventions – automation, education and regulation – are proposed as a set of holistic measures to reveal, and potentially control, predict and prevent further proliferation of the epidemic. Partial automated solutions with natural language processing, machine learning and various automated detection techniques are currently available, as exemplified here briefly. Automated solutions assist (but not replace) human judgments about whether news is truthful and credible. Information literacy efforts require further in-depth understanding of the phenomenon and interdisciplinary collaboration outside of the traditional library and information science, incorporating media studies, journalism, interpersonal psychology and communication perspectives.



This research has been funded by the Government of Canada Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant (No. 435-2015-0065) awarded for the project entitled “Digital deception detection: identifying deliberate misinformation in online news.” Many thanks to Ben Rubin, a Forest Ecologist, for the extensive conversations on the topic, and to Yimin Chen, Sarah Cornwell, Toluwase Asubiaro, Chris Brogly, doctoral students at LiT.RL, Western, for their helpful suggestions.


Rubin, V.L. (2019), "Disinformation and misinformation triangle: A conceptual model for “fake news” epidemic, causal factors and interventions", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 75 No. 5, pp. 1013-1034.



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