Misinformation vs Disinformation: Understanding the difference online

Posted on August 10, 2023 in Explainers.

people using phone sharing misinformation and disinformation

In today’s digital age, social media has become an essential part of our daily lives. We use it to connect with friends and family, share our thoughts and experiences, and stay updated with current events. However, with the rise of social media, we have also seen the rise of malicious individuals who weaponize misinformation and disinformation for their own social, political, and economic ends. We’ve seen that this can have serious negative consequences for both individuals and society at large. But what is the difference between misinformation and disinformation?

What is Misinformation?

Misinformation refers to false or inaccurate information that is spread with or without the intention to deceive. This can happen when someone shares information that they believe to be true but is not supported by facts. For example, a person might share a false or misleading news article they saw on Twitter (X) without verifying the information in the story. By sharing this article, they have unintentionally spread misinformation, which could potentially be harmful to those who read or believe it. 

What is Disinformation?

Disinformation, on the other hand, is false or inaccurate information that is spread intentionally. This can happen when someone creates and shares fake news with the intent to mislead others. For example, a person might create a fake news article that claims a politician, individual, or group of people based on their identity is involved in a scandal, or other conspiracies. They might then share this article on social media to influence people’s opinions.

Examples of Misinformation and Disinformation on Social Media and their offline effects

Misinformation and disinformation are prevalent on social media, and they can be harmful in many ways. For example, misinformation can lead to the spread of false information, which can harm individuals and society. Disinformation can be even more harmful because it is spread intentionally and can be used to manipulate people’s opinions and behavior.

One example of the spread of disinformation is the recent circulation of an AI-generated fake image depicting an explosion near the US Pentagon. This intentional deception aims to manipulate public opinion by presenting false events as real.

One example of disinformation is the spread of an AI-generated fake image depicting an explosion near the US Pentagon

This fabricated image quickly went viral on social media, highlighting the alarming power of disinformation to erode trust in reliable news sources and spread misinformation. Such disinformation undermines trust in news sources, fuels misinformation, and can have serious consequences for individuals and communities.

Over the years, social media platforms have attempted to reduce the spread of false information by implementing fact-checking measures or cracking down on accounts that share misinformation. However, recent events like Elon Musk taking over Twitter (X) and reinstating previously banned accounts, has shown that platforms’ actions to combat mis and disinformation depends on the whim of their bosses and the lack of legislation exacerbates the problem.

Our Toxic Twitter research cover: Elon Musk reinstated banned accounts that are responsible for the spread of disinformation

How to Avoid Misinformation and Disinformation

Spotting misinformation and disinformation on social media can be difficult, but research shows that being aware of the manipulation tactics that bad actors use can help. Here are some of the things that experts say to look out for before sharing something on social media:

  • Fake experts: check people’s credentials – do they really have expertise related to the topic they are writing about? Have they made questionable claims before?
  • Divisive content: is someone posting content just to make people angry and deepen social or political divisions? That could be a sign they are posting misinformation.
  • Whataboutism: this is when someone responds to a point by raising a parallel one, asking “well what about this?” This is another tactic of misinformation spreaders.
  • Conspiracies: misinformation and disinformation is often dressed up as a conspiracy. Straightforward explanations are much more likely.
  • Trolls: there are people who use misinformation and disinformation to try and make you angry. Read more about dealing with trolls in our report Don’t Feed the Trolls.

By being aware of these factors, you can take steps to avoid misinformation and disinformation and to promote a more informed and democratic society.

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