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