ARENA Tuesday seminar: Maarten Hillebrandt and Marlen Heide (online)

Maarten Hillebrandt and Marlen Heide present the paper 'The bankruptcy of transparency? Disinformation and its theoretical challenge' at the ARENA Tuesday seminar on 16 February 2021.

AbstractImage may contain: Glasses, Forehead, Nose, Hair, Cheek.

This paper explores the interaction between transparency and disinformation. Disinformation has been defined as “false, inaccurate or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit” (European Commission, 2018). In recent years, it has been identified as a growing problem in democracies around the world. In an age of transparency, the widespread prevalence of disinformation appears puzzling. The project of transparency, after all, has from the beginning intended to promote the large-scale availability of information for enhancing public insight, and thereby, trust in institutions. Disinformation, by contrast, mitigates the conscious processing of information, creating information structures in which contradictions are not recognized (Cheyfitz, 2017). However, public authorities continue to rely on the rationalist transparency approach in their efforts to counter disinformation (Alemanno, 2018; Hillebrandt, 2019). This happens in spite of an incipient scholarship on disinformation which rejects the plausibility of the rationalist approach of information reception, selection and processing. Instead, it suggests that credibility and trustworthiness are generated through strategic communication that relies on emotive and personalized formats. In a similar vein, transparency sceptics have questioned the overly optimistic conception of what transparency offers to the political process. Several years on, it appears as if the preponderance of disinformation proves the sceptics right.

In this paper, we explore the conceptual and theoretical assumptions of underlying the traditional transparency paradigm and the most recent insights derived from disinformation disinformation scholarship. How do they speak to one another and where do they contradict? We do so by systematically comparing both government transparency policy and disinformation with regard to core dimensions of communication theory, including the concept of information, the role and nature of the sender and the recipient, the platform and means of communication, and finally, the theory of communication and expectations concerning goals to be obtained.

The paper also explores the potential and likelihood of interactions and mutual influences between the two communication instruments. It appears that, while disinformation from the perspective of government transparency policy forms an ephemeral phenomenon that is difficult to account for and remains partially out of sight, deliberate disinformation strategies are very much aware of transparency policy and actively seek to undermine it. Both approaches however may share in common that they take no active interest in understanding each other at a motivational level, and take place in largely distinctive information ecosystems.


  • Alemanno, A. 2018. How to counter fake news? A taxonomy of fake news approaches. European Journal of Risk Regulation 9(1), 1-5
  • Cheyfitz, E. 2017. The Disinformation Age: The Collapse of Liberal Democracy in the United States (New York/London: Routledge)
  • European Commission, 2018. The digital transformation of news media and the rise of disinformation and fake news. JRC Digital Economy Working Papers 2018-02, April 2018
  •  Hillebrandt, M. 2019. EU transparency in times of disinformation. Paper presented at the NIG Annual Work Conference, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, 7 November 2019

Download paper (restricted access).

Please note that this paper is work in progress and thus has limited distribution, please contact us if you would like access. Do not cite without permission from the author.

Published Jan. 12, 2021 12:10 PM - Last modified Feb. 22, 2021 8:19 AM