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Neat to know ~ Feature of the week

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Misinformation and Disinformation

two types of fake news

Image: Colin Behrens, Pixabay

We usually assume that facts are facts.  When we hear or read something that is labeled as “news,” we tend to believe it.  When we see a photograph or a video, we think it’s real.  However, there are more and more half-truths and lies that are swimming around in the sea of information out there, and it is getting increasingly difficult to tell fact from fiction.  

You might have heard the terms “misinformation” and “disinformation” thrown around quite a lot these days.  They both refer to information that is false.  But there is a difference between the two words, despite the fact that they are often used interchangeably.  

Misinformation – not on purpose

Picture this: it’s 8:00 pm, and you still haven’t started studying for tomorrow’s history test.  Suddenly, your phone buzzes; it’s a trusted friend, and he’s texting you that the test has been postponed until next week.  You’re thrilled!   In your excitement, you text some of your classmates with the good news.  They are equally pleased and just as willing to spread the joy to a few more people.  Those people share it with their friends.  And so on.  In no time, the whole class is rejoicing.  

The next morning everyone gets to school, happy to have a test-free day.  But then, your teacher tells the class to quiet down.  “It’s time to start the test now, so no more talking,” she says.

Everyone looks at everyone else, shocked and confused.  But what about last night’s celebratory no-test texting fest?  Had  that all been a lie?

You get your test paper and stare at it with glazed eyes and a brain devoid of answers.  So does everybody else.

You find out later that the friend who had texted you last night at 8:00 pm had misunderstood a line in an email the teacher had sent to his parents.  An essay deadline – not the history test –  had been postponed.

This was a case of misinformation.  It was a falsehood that was spread without any bad intent.  No one along the chain of communication had meant to cause harm.  But at the same time, no one had thought to double check the information that had been passed on to them.  Everyone had been receptive to the news because it had boosted them emotionally and had come from a source that seemed reliable.  The end result was pretty disastrous.  

Misinformation is “fake news” that is started without the intention to deceive .  It usually spreads quickly, often over social media.  In the case of the history test debacle, the misinformation was easily detected and the reason for the spread of the falsehood became immediately clear.  But most webs of misinformation are not so simple to disentangle.  Misinformation in the world is frequently spread as “fact” for a long time and often never really rooted out.

Disinformation – on purpose

Now imagine the same story, but with a darker twist.  You receive a text at 8:00 pm, but this time from a classmate, whom you don’t know that well but think is reliable enough.  You embrace the news about the test postponement and shout it from the rooftops (and via WhatsApp).

The same disastrous consequences as in the first story come back to bite everyone.  But this time, we are looking at a case of disinformation.  Why?  Because the person who started this piece of fake news wanted to purposefully make everyone else fail so he could be the best in the class.  He secretly studied and was well prepared.  He pretended that he was as shocked as everyone else and that he had innocently misunderstood an email.  People believed him, and remained completely in the dark as to his shady objective.

Disinformation is the intentional spreading of falsehoods.  In this case, the disinformation was easy to spread because everyone was happy to accept the news as true and then to run with it, without the least bit of skepticism.
Disinformation is more dangerous than misinformation, because it is used to deliberately manipulate people’s thoughts and actions to accomplish some kind of goal.  Just as with misinformation, its origins cannot easily be uncovered.

Where is the truth?

When there is a lot of misinformation and disinformation, facts become a matter of debate.  People start to choose what to believe, and there is no set of shared truths.  You could say that there are “alternate realities.”  For example, many people say that human-caused climate change is a fact, backed up by evidence.  But other people say just as adamantly that the idea of climate change is a made-up story – a hoax, cooked up to destroy life as we know it.  Each side of the climate change issue claims that the other side is spreading disinformation.  Similarly, scientists and medical professionals say that the coronavirus pandemic is a real crisis for which there are real solutions, like wearing masks, staying home, and washing your hands.  But there are others who claim that the crisis is over-blown or even nonexistent and that the proposed solutions are schemes intended to take away people’s rights and destroy the economy.  

Rather than working from an agreed-upon set of objective facts and then debating how to deal with those facts, people are debating the facts themselves.  Misinformation thrives as people seek to hear what they want to hear, find it, and spread it, regardless of any evidence that disproves it.  Disinformation, in the form of altered photographs and videos, fake news stories, and appeals to people’s emotions rather than to their reasoning capabilities, is sent out into the world and believed by millions.  Disinformation in particular is most successful when provable facts and the people who share those facts (like scientists and news reporters) are systematically delegitimized.  When a government claims that the news media is nothing but a bunch of liars and “the enemy of the people,” then whatever reporters present as fact is up for debate – even when those facts are provable.  Delegitimizing sources of fact makes room for lies.

When the truth is no longer recognized by (or recognizable to) a large number of people, they become vulnerable to manipulation.  Governments, for example, can easily use disinformation to plant their own “facts” in the minds of people whose support they are trying to get.  Individuals who seek power above all else,  strive to manipulate as many minds as possible in their favor.  Creating and spreading disinformation is one way they are able to control people.  Dictators throughout world history have used disinformation in the form of propaganda to convince people that their governments are good while anyone who opposes them is bad.

The spread of disinformation and misinformation is not new.  The ways in which they are spread, though, has become faster, more seamless, and more sneaky than ever.  It’s becoming harder for the voice of truth to speak over the noise of all the lies.

What you can do

Let’s go back to our history test example.  What could you have done better in that situation?  First of all, you could have been skeptical.  When you noticed that you had a strong emotional response to the good news without questioning how realistic the news actually was, you should have stopped for a moment and thought, “This seems too good to be true.  Why has no one else been told about the test getting postponed?  That doesn’t make sense.”  Secondly, you could have looked for multiple sources before accepting that one statement as fact.  Calling other classmates, checking your teacher’s website, and requesting that your friend check the email from your teacher again, could have been ways to determine the soundness of the statement.  And third, you should have shared the information more responsibly.  Only after checking its validity should you have decided to spread it.  

It is easy to feel powerless amidst the swirl of increasingly sophisticated fake news stories and the viral nature of misinformation and disinformation.  But actually, we all have it in our hands to either promote or stop the spread of lies.  Be skeptical.  Check for proof from a multitude of sources.  Share responsibly.   Then we can start to know the truth, defend the truth, and resist those who make science and facts a matter of opinion.

Sources: Harris, Jessica, brookings.edu, “How to combat fake news and disinformation,” https://www.brookings.edu/research/how-to-combat-fake-news-and-disinformation/, December 18, 2017; Daniels, Chris, King 5, “What’s the difference between misinformation and disinformation?  UW professor explains,” https://www.king5.com/article/news/politics/dispelling-misinformation-disinformation-online-university-of-washington-election-day/281-641e44b3-11f9-4427-a451-9464189b0029, October 3, 2020.