scorecardMisinformation vs. disinformation: What to know about each form of false information, and how to spot them online
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Misinformation vs. disinformation: What to know about each form of false information, and how to spot them online

Meira Gebel   

Misinformation vs. disinformation: What to know about each form of false information, and how to spot them online
Tech4 min read
Being a critical consumer of the news means understanding and identifying misinformation.    NicolasMcComber/Getty Images
  • Misinformation refers to false or out-of-context information that is presented as fact regardless of an intent to deceive.
  • Disinformation is a type of misinformation that is intentionally false and intended to deceive or mislead.
  • Both misinformation and disinformation involve the sharing of bad or debunked information, with varying intents and purposes.

Misinformation is everywhere online, and anyone can be vulnerable to it. On social media, you may have at one point shared an article that you believed to be true at the time, but that you later discovered actually contained falsehoods or outdated information.

While both misinformation and disinformation can deceive audiences, the distinction is that disinformation is intentionally, maliciously deceptive. Both forms often involve widespread dissemination, whether or not the person sharing is aware of the inaccuracies.

It's important for everyone to know how to spot mis- and disinformation online to avoid spreading falsehoods and to be critical consumers of online news, particularly through social media.

Misinformation has become so prevalent online that some organizations have launched initiatives to tackle it, such as the Google News Initiative, and Poynter's MediaWise Teen Fact-Checking Network.

What is misinformation?

The term misinformation refers to information that is false or inaccurate, and is often spread widely with others, regardless of an intent to deceive.

Business Insider spoke with Brian Southwell, an author, social scientist, professor, and director at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, about the differences between misinformation and disinformation, as well as how to spot each in the real world.

Examples of misinformation

There's a conspiracy theory circulating online that claims 5G cellular networks cause cancer, or even COVID-19, despite there being no scientific evidence to support this claim. The main idea behind the false claim is that 5G radio waves are harmful to the brain and cause health issues such as autism and cancer. However, experts have debunked this concern, explaining that 5G radio waves cannot damage the DNA in our cells, nor can they even penetrate past the skin, which acts as a protective barrier. This theory is an example of misinformation because it presents incorrect and out-of-context information as fact.

Southwell said he's been seeing a lot of misinformation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and vaccine. He noted that in early spring when the virus was just beginning to grip the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not recommend the use of masks. But just weeks later, the agency reversed its recommendation based on new data citing their effectiveness.

"Science offers us an estimate - the best idea based on available evidence now [or] six months from now that might change, and that's okay, that's the way science works," Southwell said. "So if you've got people that are not paying attention to the historical context, and they're going back willingly pointing to something that was a year old and reporting that as new information now, well that combination is misinformation."

What is disinformation?

While misinformation is false information that is created and spread regardless of an intent to harm or deceive, disinformation is a type of misinformation that is created to be deliberately deceptive. Both forms may be shared widely, regardless of whether or not the sharer knows the information is wrong.

"Disinformation is not a 21st century phenomenon," Southwell said. "When you've got a lack of correct information, and an anxious population with a lot at stake, disinformation is going to flourish. When people are anxious and looking for answers, somebody is going to provide those answers and capitalize on it financially or politically."

Misinformation can turn into disinformation when it's still shared by individuals or groups who know it's wrong yet intentionally spread it to cast doubt or stir divisiveness.

Examples of disinformation

One of the most relevant examples of a disinformation campaign is Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election with help from Facebook ads, pages, and private groups. Russian actors targeted specific geographic regions and swing states to spread propaganda against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and sow division among Americans.

Unsubstantiated rumors, gossip, or claims of grand conspiracy can also count as pieces of disinformation.

How to recognize misinformation and disinformation

"Regardless of whether it's disinformation or misinformation, it's important to know that it's inaccurate and it means that you should not be believing it, and you should not be relying on that information," Southwell said.

According to Southwell, if you come across information with the following characteristics, you should consider it suspicious:

  • If it seems too good to be true
  • If it plays to your own implicit biases
  • If it elicits either extreme positive or negative emotions
  • If it's not properly sourced, or the stats appear out of date

The best, baseline way to interrogate a source of information is to check:

  • The author
  • The organization
  • The date it was published
  • The evidence
  • What other sources say

"Always try to figure out where the information is coming from," Southwell said. "Do you know the original source of the information? Is it listed clearly? Can you clearly tell what organization is responsible for this? I think having people slow down and do a quick search to see if you can find other information sources that might verify that information, that goes a long way."

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