Author Toba Beta once wrote, “Disinformation is duping. Misinformation is tricking.” It’s not a bad attempt to tease out the difference between two terms – disinformation and misinformation – often (and mistakenly) used interchangeably. While both pose certain risks to our rights and democracy, one is more dangerous. And that’s because the main difference between the two is intent.
What does misinformation mean?
Misinformation is misleading, inaccurate or completely false information that is communicated without the explicit intent to deceive. Nevertheless, it is intended to be perceived as serious, factual information by the audience.
Examples of misinformation abound. The rise of social media, which allows almost anyone to easily share what’s on their mind, is one of the main vehicles for misinformation. But so too are media outlets, including some of the largest news companies, such as Fox News or RT, which is a mouthpiece of the Kremlin. These outlets often peddle misinformation in an effort to stoke anger or fear in their viewers. Even credible news outlets share misinformation, for example when they run a false news item without properly checking it, or talk shows that open their air to guests who share misinformation.
Flat-earth theory is an example of misinformation. We know it’s false and that the earth is a globe. We’ve even advanced to the point where we’ve been able to give ourselves a bird’s-eye view of it, allowing all of us to appreciate its roundness. But despite this, there are many people who genuinely believe the earth is flat. The internet is rife with anecdotes and “evidence” that attempts to prove the earth is flat, and the theory has been around since humans first started thinking about the shape of our world. Those who perpetuate this fiction truly believe it is true—rather than to mislead people, they truly believe they are enlightening others. So it’s a clear case of misinformation instead of disinformation.
A misinformation story that made its way around the internet some years ago—and helped along by some dubious news outlets—asserted that Yoko Ono and Hillary Clinton had an affair in the 1970s, when Clinton was a student at Yale. The story is false, but outlets that shared it may have been duped into believing its authenticity and ran it, including quotes from Yoko Ono that appeared to back it up.
An important distinction between misinformation and disinformation is that the former is free speech. Yes, the false information that is shared can (and often does) cause harm, either to individuals or society. But it’s shared in, for lack of a better term, good faith. The disseminator of the information not only believes it to be true, but believes they are helping society grow and learn by sharing the information. They do not intend to cause harm.
Those who share disinformation, however, do intend to cause harm, and very often their messages can constitute slander or hate speech against certain people or groups of people. This is not always protected speech. So it’s helpful to remember that people who share disinformation often do not have the right to do so—it’s not free speech.
Definition of disinformation: What does disinformation mean?
Disinformation is false information that is shared with the intention of misleading people. The sharer of the “news” knows that it is false and wishes to deceive their audience. Unlike misinformation, the purpose of disinformation is not a good-faith attempt to enlighten, but a bad-faith attempt to create division and stir up fear.
Here’s an example from 2018 about the ownership of Romanian media. It claimed that 90% of Romanian media was owned by Israelis. The story was shared by a Romanian news outlet that surely knew that what they were running was false. The reason for sharing the news was to stoke anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Unsurprisingly, the outlet that shared the news is known for pushing disinformation, particularly pro-Kremlin disinformation.
When fire ravaged the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral in 2019, a disinformation campaign initiated by far-right activists in Spain, France, Germany and Italy blamed the fire on Islamic extremists in an attempt to stoke anti-Muslim hate in Europe. In early 2021, pro-Kremlin media in Russia and Germany reported that three young children were taken from their Russian parents by Berlin police, who told them “This is for Navalny!”
Why are misinformation and disinformation both dangerous? Who do these affect the most?
Misinformation and disinformation can both be dangerous because, but disinformation is far more destructive, and not necessarily legal free speech. Disinformation can obstruct the public’s ability to debate issues and make decisions in three ways. First, both give people false information, sometimes couples with false analysis, and thus lead people to making decisions that are counter to what they actually want or is in their best interest. This is especially so during elections. Disinformation is used to deceive and manipulate voters, scaring them with imaginary threats, instilling them with a false sense of fear, and offering them bogus solutions to the made up problems.
Second, disinformation is not intended to nurture public debate at all—quite the opposite. It is almost always polarizing, intentionally pushing people into adopting extreme opinions and beliefs that leave no room for compromise. As the opportunity to find middle ground shrinks, it is increasingly harder for politicians to defend positions that allow for compromise and finding solutions that allow everyone to coexist happily and safely.
Finally, even if disinformation (or misinformation) is not accepted as factual by those who consume it, the effect of this exposure sows mistrust in the media and institutions. When people are presented with conflicting messages—messages that are extreme and do not overlap in the least—they lose trust in all sources of information, including legitimate news outlets. The result is that many choose to disconnect from all sources of information, making them less informed and less willing to contribute to public debate on important issues. Nor are they still willing to stand up and defend the organizations and institutions that are credible and helpful to democracy.
Disinformation is most successful when targeting those who consume their news from a small, consistent number of sources. This often means that the person has chosen these sources and is thus predisposed to trusting them. It also means that such people are less likely to check the information outside of their curated list of sources. The rise of targeted advertising also helps the spread of misinformation and disinformation. Now social media platforms are able to profile their users, aggregating information on which news sites they visit, and which posts they like, share or otherwise interact with. That allows them to be targeted more precisely with posts and news they are likely to agree with or want to see.
How do you spot misinformation and disinformation?
Identifying misinformation and disinformation can be difficult. A key part of identifying misinformation is to develop a critical mindset about the information you consume and checking it against other sources.
Who is the author? Is he /she a reliable source?
It is important to take note of the person who authored the information. Are they seen as credible by news sources they don’t work for? Has their reporting been accurate in the past?
What do other sources say about this topic?
Have other sources shared the same information? If you see something in the Daily Mail, was it also published by larger outlets, like the BBC?
Is there any real evidence?
Is the information at hand merely one’s opinion, or is it supported by empirical evidence? If a news source says that a certain household cleaning product will cure the coronavirus, does the story contain studies proving this? Or offer any proof at all?
When was it published?
Be mindful of the publication date. Old news is sometimes repurposed and manipulated to appear to be about a current event.
Where did you find it? Is that platform reliable?
It’s important not only to note the author of the information, but also the platform it’s shared on. Are large, well-established outlets running the story as well? Is it only on niche or politically extreme platforms? Or is it on news sites at all? If it’s a private post or something seen in message boards, it’s more likely to be one person’s contrived fiction than information that was properly reported.
Identifying and separating misinformation and disinformation can be difficult, and it often does require a little extra effort on the part of the reader. But another important element of identifying and mitigating the effects of misinformation and disinformation is a burden that does not fall on individuals, but rather society as a whole. It is necessary to create an environment where such information is less likely to reach people, and thus trust is regained in our institutions.
And this does not necessarily mean censoring content. There’s simply too much content to check by a human, and algorithms can’t do it accurately. But the real problem here is that it’s incredibly dangerous to anoint a single person or entity as the arbiter of truth. Moreover, even misinformation and disinformation is, with some exceptions, free speech.
But we can still mitigate its effects. Having a well-funded and independent public broadcaster that facilitates quality journalism, that encourages balanced debate, and that is generally trusted by the public is important. And having a pluralistic media market that financially supports quality outlets is another important measure. This goes hand in hand with having independent authorities and proper enforcement of competition rules so that it is harder for papers or online news outlets to be bought up cheaply by tycoons who then use them to push their own agenda. It also ensures news groups have the resources for good quality journalism people can trust rather than going for attention-grabbing, sensationalist click-bait.
It is also important to remove the financial incentives that encourage misinformation and disinformation on social media platforms. At the moment, platforms make money through delivering targeted content. Popular content makes more money than unpopular content. Sensationalist misinformation and disinformation is very popular, so algorithms push lies to make money. Changing the way content promotion algorithms work would help. So too would enforcing data protection rules. Misinformation and disinformation have to reach their target audience in order to do harm. They rely on microtargeting so that they can reach the people most likely to be affected. But microtargeting only works because social media platforms are violating data protection rules and gathering information without people’s consent.
There should be no doubt that misinformation and disinformation pose certain threats to our democracy, especially disinformation. Mitigating it is a shared burden. We, as readers, must think critically about the information we consume, take the effort to question it and open our minds to opposing views. Only when we are well informed can we make informed decisions about what to trust and what not to trust. And our governments need to construct an environment where factual news is encouraged and has the same chance of reaching people as misinformation or disinformation.
Creating this environment must be done carefully, so as to not violate anyone’s free speech. But doing so is necessary to ensure that free and democratic societies can flourish.
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