What are disinformation and misinformation?

Although the internet is often a reliable source on any topic, it is also used to spread lies and misleading information. This is also known as disinformation.

Disinformation is characterized by the intention behind it, as all disinformation is spread on purpose to influence people and deceive them. Although not limited to just governmental entities, disinformation is often used in state-funded propaganda to feed people the leaders’ own narrative or influence other nations and their citizens.

Many have become more aware of mis- and disinformation due to their prevalence on the internet and social media in particular. Especially high profile elections during the 2010s and 2020s have been replete with false claims and deceptive news articles. The Covid-19 pandemic was another milestone in the spreading of mis- and disinformation with numerous false claims about the origins and severity of the virus as well as the vaccine developed to combat it.

Reasons for spreading disinformation

There are many possible motives behind spreading disinformation, some more malicious than others.

Financial gain

By fabricating unbelievable and sensational news stories, web­sites can get more clicks on social media, and as a consequence, more ad revenue from people visiting their web­site.

Political motives

Disinformation, especially in the age of social media, is a powerful tool for discrediting political opponents and making one’s own party or candidate look better. Spreading false information is one way to sway political elections to help aid one candidate or party to win. Using sophisticated technology, disinformation can be targeted at specific groups of people to ensure the desired effect.

Warfare and military motives

Disinformation, fake news and propaganda are used in information warfare. One central part of information warfare is manipulating information in order to influence the target according to the attacker’s wishes.


Some­times there is no other motive behind the fabrication and spreading of incorrect information than harassing people. So-called internet trolls can spread disinformation just for their own entertainment.

Creating mistrust

Spreading disinformation is one way to weaken people’s trust in real news. When there is so much disinformation being spread around, it can be hard to believe in actual news or distinguish facts from fake news.

Satire and humor

Some­times disinformation can be intended as humorous content that is not supposed to be taken as truth. Instead, the intention behind such disinformation can be to offer entertainment or act as satire. Unfortunately, this does not stop people from mistaking such content for real news.

Bad journalism

The spread of false information may also be a consequence of insufficient back­ground research and journalism done under strict time constraints. This may lead to web­sites publishing news that is based on incorrect and uncorroborated sources. Although news web­sites often correct them­selves after making a mistake, once some­thing has been reported as news, it has already influenced how people think or feel about a certain topic or person.

Disinformation vs misinformation

Two terms that are often mixed up or used interchangeably are disinformation and misinformation. However, these two are not the same thing. Here are some similarities and differences between misinformation and disinformation.

  • Both dis- and misinformation involve the spreading of false information that is either partially or entirely with no basis in truth. To seem more plausible and believable, fabricated news often has some nuggets of truth in them.
  • Whereas disinformation is deliberately misleading and done with a clear objective, misinformation can be accidental. For example, people may share news on social media that is in line with their own way of thinking. Although they may think that the news is real, they are in fact spreading disinformation created by others.
  • Both dis- and misinformation are created to elicit a strong emotional response in people, either negative or positive. This is done by creating unbelievable claims about a topic or person that the recipient feels strongly about, such as a political candidate or climate change, or important aspects of the recipient’s identity.
  • Misinformation can be harmless if the person spreading it just has the facts wrong. Disinformation is malicious by default and seeks to deceive others.

There is also the lesser-known term malinformation which is based on the truth but is used in order to cause harm to others. In this sense, it is similar to disinformation. Malinformation can take the form of, for instance, releasing someone else’s private information to intentionally ruin their reputation or otherwise mislead others. Examples of malinformation include phishing and doxxing. Often the information can be exaggerated or taken out of context for bad intentions. Together dis-, mis- and malinformation are referred to by the acronym MDM.

What is fake news?

Fake news refers to misleading or made-up information that is disguised as real news and spread as such. Although fake news is not a new phenomenon, more people have become aware of it in recent years. Two significant factors that have contributed to the prevalence of fake news are the rise of social media and political elections in some countries. For example, the term fake news was used a great deal by former president Donald Trump who used it to refer to all news that he did not agree with.

Unfortunately, fake news spread on social media as it is often much more exciting than reality, especially if the reader already agrees with the message of the news story. To make matters worse, as news stories are spread on social media, many tend to just read the title which may lead to an incorrect interpretation of the real story.

How to spot disinformation and fake news online?

Digital media literacy and knowing how to spot false and intentionally misleading information is some­thing that all internet users should take an effort to learn. Fortunately, social media platforms have taken initiative by allowing users to flag fake news and disinformation. Additionally, there are many groups and individuals who are dedicated to fact-checking news stories and claims made by politicians and other public figures.

In order to avoid falling for misleading information online, do the following when encountering news and information.

  • Read more than just the title. Sensational news head­lines may hide behind them a story that is far from exciting. The title of a news story is not always descriptive of the actual story.
  • Check the sources. What is the news story based on and are the sources reliable? If the news item is written by a credible news outlet, it is more likely to be true. Check also if the information in the story is corroborated by other sources or if it is the only one making such claims.
  • Consider if the story is realistic. If a news story or a claim online seems too good to be true, then it is more likely to be made up.
  • Check the publishing date. Out-of-date information and news may not give a realistic picture of the topic. See what the most recent news stories are saying.
  • Consider the motives behind the story. If a news story or piece of information comes from an authority with strong political, religious, commercial or other similar motives, you should stay critical. Such back­ground does not automatically discredit the source but can suggest some kind of a conflict of interest. In some cases, rather than real news, you could be reading a piece of satire or intentionally humorous content only disguised as news.
  • Consult an authoritative source. Fact-checkers and other reliable sources do their best to correct false claims and make their valuable work available to the public.
  • Look out for image manipulation. Many people are convinced of a story once they see photographic evidence or videos. However, modern tools have made image manipulation easy for every­one. Another concern is videos that have been tampered with. So-called deepfakes may include a well-known person saying the most outlandish things, although in fact the video and audio have been generated using machine learning and artificial intelligence.

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