Your great aunt Martha sends you a note asking you to drink more water. She’s heard it helps prevent coronavirus, but a quick search proves that information to be false. Your cousin Chuck sends you a video of Nancy Pelosi, she appears to be intoxicated but you find a news article that says the video has been doctored and slowed down to make her seem drunk.
Your family definitely sent you some misinformation, but is it also disinformation?
We tend to use them interchangeably, but researchers make a distinction. “Researchers try to maintain a distinction between misinformation and disinformation. The latter generally involves an intent to deceive...misinformation doesn’t,” says Mozilla Fellow Renée DiResta.
“In the misinformation scenario, if someone asks you the address of a bakery that is located downtown, you may get confused and send the person the wrong way,” says misinformation researcher and Mozilla fellow Narrira Lemos de Souza. “In the disinformation scenario, you see a sticker on the car of that person that makes you angry and you deliberately send her to another place to harm her day.”
Does the distinction matter?
Experts say it does. “The distinction does matter, because while all misinformation spreads fake news and contributes to mistrust or confusion, the solutions to tackling these issues vary,” says Neema Iyer, founder and director of Pollicy and creator of Choose Your Own Fake News. “Fact checking might be enough to correct false information shared accidentally, but if the content was created for the purpose of spreading hoaxes or conspiracy theories, then technology platforms and practitioners would need a very different response.”
Why do they need a different response? Sources of disinformation are often states spreading propaganda, large political organizations, or other groups with agendas and access to resources that individuals sharing falsehoods on accident don't have. This problem is made worse when these organizations work tirelessly to understand algorithms that platforms use to determine reach and create content specifically designed to manipulate and exploit them.
"At an absolute minimum, social media companies need to stop actively amplifying harmful content, and to stop recommending conspiracy theory groups for people to join," says Jon Lloyd, director of campaigns at Mozilla. "Many of the big platforms now have policies in place for different types of disinformation, and they need to enforce those — especially when it comes to world leaders or others with large followings.” Unfortunately, even when platforms like Facebook have put in place these policies, they don’t always enforce them, and their decision making process is deliberately opaque.
It isn’t just algorithms that these organizations exploit, it’s also platform’s advertising features. "An advertiser can select ads to show you based on the profile they have built from your data," explains Marshall Erwin, Senior Director of Trust and Security at Mozilla, but "these same sophisticated profiles and ad targeting tools allow politicians to slice and dice the electorate. Politicians might have a divisive message that they can target to certain demographics, such as one designed to radicalize white, middle aged men."
How can you tell something is disinformation?
There are some telltale signs. “Often it's too good to be true, the titles are sensationalized or stir up intense emotions,” says Iyer. “Or there are no quotes from experts (with traceable links) or links to other articles and sources. It's also a good idea to verify if the site is satire or parody”
“Sometimes misinformation comes with an absurd statement about specific people. For example, it might say that Leonardo di Caprio is funding the fires in the rainforest,” says Lemos. “Another red flag is that in most of the cases, disinformation is shared by unknown sources or unreliable news websites, like blogs or fake social media accounts — usually some place that you can't check the source. If you see some absurd statement about someone, check it in reliable news!”
Disinformation typically has an agenda, so always think carefully about where it came from and whether it’s intended to create harm. For more on spotting misinformation, see our tips for spotting misinformation like the pros and telling fact from crap in your news feed.