Disinformation Misinformation

These days I’m constantly bombarded with headlines about disinformation and misinformation. The words, seemingly used interchangeably, create yet another layer of confusion in trying to figure out what, and who, to trust on the internet.

I had an idea about how the two terms differed in meaning, but I wanted confirmation. Naturally I consulted the dictionary first. Confirming the definition and meaning of your terms is always a good start, even if you think you already know what they mean. Then I read another favorite resource, Quick and Dirty Tips, by Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl. This amazing website is full of short, targeted grammar tips.

Essentially the difference between the two terms is intent. Misinformation is incorrect information that is unknowingly, or mistakenly, spread. For example, people who retweet or forward articles containing inaccurate information. Whereas disinformation is intentionally spreading false information. According to my research, it is derived from a Russian word, dezinformatsiya.

For those of us who are just trying to figure out what’s going on in the world, it can be challenging to discern the difference between real news and fake news. Between advertisements and articles that are misinformation, disinformation, or simply propaganda. In early September, the New York Times posted an interactive article entitled “Can You Spot the Deceptive Facebook Page?” to educate people on how to detect the differences, including four examples to test your skills.

I managed to correctly identity the fakes, but I found it challenging because they are so well done. Some of the tips offered to spot fake ads included things like noticing spelling or grammar mistakes, but honestly, who doesn’t post something with a typo once in a while?

I also think having the two samples placed side-by-side made it easier to tell which one was real and which one was fake. In a real world context, if one of the fake ads appeared in your social media feed alongside everything else, it could be even more difficult to tell it wasn’t genuine. To further complicate matters, sometimes the fake campaigns on Facebook are populated with content by real people from real groups.

It’s also easy for disinformation to go “viral”, making it complicated to validate if it’s real or not. My advice, rely on a trusted source and observe the details. Check out this guide on Evaluating Information for more tips on how to spot disinformation.


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