Misinformation and disinformation are two terms that are often used interchangeably in research, but what do they mean and what is the difference between the two? This is a quick blog post to clarify the notions of misinformation, disinformation and “fake news”.
The primary difference between mis- and dis- is intent to deceive. The prefix “mis-” is used in its original sense to express the negative or incorrect use of something, such as “misrepresent”, “mistrial” or “mislead”. Mis- is when there is no intent to deceive the reader – such as mistaken satire, prematurely published articles or reportage errors. Mis- can be on the side of the text producer or the text propagator.
The most common form of misinformation is when social media users share disinforming articles without knowing that the article is fake. This normally happens when a user shares an article on the basis of an appeal to emotion and forgoes checking the veracity of the article.
Borrowed from the Russian “dezinformatsiya” (“дезинформация”) in the 1950s, dis- is information that is intentionally factually incorrect and aims to deceive readers. Dis- is normally what is referred to when the term “fake news” is used when referring to content publishers who deliberately write fake articles.
Dis- is not only found on dedicated disinforming websites and is often used when referring to hostile state information operations, such as election interference. These dis- campaigns are named in this way because they are hostile actors deliberately spreading fake information.
An example of mis- on Twitter is 2015 story titled “Taylor Swift Banned From Entering Africa” from the satirical Black Explainer. The article was shared to Twitter and treated as factual news by users who hadn’t identified it as satire.
The user above is unaware the article is fake, and is consequently disseminating misinformation. Since 2015, the Black Explainer have updated their site to include a clear marker that they are a satirical outlet, something they didn’t include when the Taylor Swift story was originally written.
This shows how mis- is often a result of one of two processes: (1) the first is when people genuinely fall for fake content because it appears to be veracious and a legitimate news article; (2) the second is when people knowingly forfeit their critical faculties and do not fact check an article because it appeals to their emotions or aligns with ideologies. The first type can be considered ‘pure’ mis- while the second is closer to dis-; it sees people take an ‘ignorance-is-bliss’ approach to the content they read, where they don’t fact check content because the content agrees with them.
Individual cases of dis- are usually more difficult to identify as it requires, in some part, seeing into the mindset of the sharer to see if they’re sharing the news knowing it is fake. An easily identifiable example is well-known disinformation producers such as yournewswire.com publishing ‘news’ stories they know to be spurious.
Large scale dis- campaigns also offer some very interesting findings. Recently, Twitter released two very large troves of tweets they identified as being Russian and Iranian state produced disinformation. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the tweets is their innocuity:
These are examples of tweets from verified hostile state information operations yet they do not appear to overtly be pushing an ideology or particular fake content. Many dis- campaign tweets do not appear related to news at all as a way of impersonating legitimate people and building up trust in the online community, to then later exploit this trust by propagating disinformation. The Twitter data can be found at https://about.twitter.com/en_us/values/elections-integrity.html
|dis: a privative, negative, or reversing force (see de-, un-)||mis: a prefix applied to various parts of speech, meaning “ill,”“mistaken,” “wrong,” “wrongly,” “incorrectly,” or simply negating.|
|False information that is shared with the intention to deceive||False information that is not identified as false by the reader and is treated/propogated as truth|
|Intent to deceive: High||Itnent to deceive: Low|
|Example: ‘Horrific’ Hillary Clinton Snuff Film Circulating On Dark|
|Example: Taylor Swift Banned From Entering Africa Because Of Diabolical Video|
With the examples provided in the table above, both could appear as either mis- or dis-. A user could share the Swift story in the knowledge it is satire while a user could share the YourNewsWire story with the belief it is a factual news story. Discerning intention is a difficult task in disinformation research, something an upcoming blog post on FakeBelieve will be discussing in depth.
Disinformation invariably leads to misinformation. Content is created and disseminated despite is being intentionally factually incorrect and is then propagated by people who are unaware that what they are reading is false. This shows the process by which lies cross over into truth – if information is treated as truth (misinformation) despite it being false (disinformation), large-scale deception can take place to create false facts for millions of users across social media.