Misinformation and disinformation. The difference and why it matters.


Social media and alternative media in the digital age have led to new forms of misinformation and disinformation. (Photo by Allison Margaret)

Imagine the following situation.

You’ve turned up at the office party dressed as your best rendition of a “sexy tax collector”, only to notice everyone else is in black tie. You feel humiliated and angry… but mostly you feel betrayed by the friend who had told you the party was “fancy dress”.

How could this have happened? Consider these possibilities:

  1. You and your friend were up for the same promotion at work. You were in a better standing for the promotion and they knew that. They’ve been wanting to make you look bad to sabotage your shot. So, when you ask them about the dress code for the party they tell you “it’s fancy dress, the sexier the better!”.
  2. It’s been incredibly busy in the office… your friend has been swamped with emails and they’d only skimmed all of them. There simply wasn’t the time to read them thoroughly. You ask your friend what the dress code for the party was, and not wanting to admit they hadn’t read the invitation properly they tell you “it’s fancy dress”. They’d seen the word “fancy” when they’d skimmed the email and filled in the rest themself.

The first possibility was intentional and done out of malice. Your friend was trying to mislead you for their own agenda. It’s an example of disinformation.

The second possibility was a mistake based on assumption and oversight. Your friend hadn’t intended to mislead you, but without thoroughly checking their source they had done so. This is an example of misinformation.

In the context of news media, research director for First Draft News, Claire Wardle, identifies seven different types of misinformation and disinformation. These, she elaborates, are “satire or parody”, “false connection”, “misleading content”, “false context”, “imposter content”, “manipulated content” and “fabricated content”. The focus of her distinction between different types of false information is the intention behind it.

But why does the difference matter? After all, both of the above situations led to the same result- you believing information that was not correct and showing up to the party in an inappropriate outfit. The damage has already been done.

We have seen countless real world examples of how false information can influence people’s behaviour. Take for example  “Pizzagate” and the announcement that the pope endorsed Donald Trump as president. The problem goes beyond the US though, with countries in Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines, becoming hubs for fake news.

The distinction is important because the solutions are different. If, in our rhetoric, we differentiate between the sources which are deliberately creating false information for their own gain (be it financial, political or personal) and those which may unintentionally publish it through poor journalism, the solutions become more clear.

Like your hypothetical friend telling you the dress code without properly reading the email- misinformation could be the result of lazy journalism, or journalists being put under pressure to produce a high volume of work and claiming they don’t have time to check their sources thoroughly. This is especially true in the digital age with a 24/7 news cycle. This issue can only really be dealt with by a change in the culture of newsrooms, and errors being fixed as quickly as possible.

You’d probably cut ties with your friend for deliberately misleading you and you certainly wouldn’t trust them again. As for those news sources deliberately producing false information, social networking sites such as Facebook have started making moves to address this and reduce the reach of false news.

As for news consumers, in her article Claire Wardle states, “every time we passively accept information without double-checking, or share a post, image or video before we’ve verified it, we’re adding to the noise and confusion”.

So, whilst you’re not entirely to blame for your predicament, next time you should take the initiative to check the dress code yourself before turning up to the party as a sexy tax collector just because your friend told you to.


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