Mis- and disinformation

The spread of mis- and disinformation is an important topic for anyone working with media and accountability. Mis- and disinformation undermine the ability of media to foster and demand accountability on behalf of the public.

Below are some key definitions to help distinguish between the similar-sounding but very different terms under this topic. Then, you’ll find:

Key definitions

There are various forms of fake and/ or misleading content. These various labels often lead to confusion. Using definitions from First Draft, it is possible to distinguish:

  • Disinformation: false information that is deliberately created or disseminated with the express purpose to cause harm.
    Producers of disinformation typically have political, financial, psychological or social motivations.
  • Misinformation: information that is false, but not intended to cause harm.
    For example, individuals who don’t know a piece of information is false may spread it on social media in an attempt to be helpful.
  • Malinformation: information that is true, but is shared to cause harm.
    This includes private or revealing information that is spread to harm a person or reputation.

Read more: Information Disorder: The Essential Gloassary

The mis- and disinformation threat to journalism

There are three main ways in which mis- and disinformation harms the ability of journalists to hold powerholders to account.

  1. Widespread mis- and disinformation harms the public’s trust in media.
  2. Stories which are misleading mix with and dilute stories published by media outlets that genuinely try to inform the public, thereby hampering their efforts.
  3. The existence of (the notion of) ‘fake news’ makes it easier for powerful actors to dismiss legitimate criticism of them by simply calling critical media ‘fake news’.

This information does not have to be completely fabricated: mis- and disinformation often contain a mix of true and false assertions:

  • Genuine information can be manipulated;
  • a real image or story can be shared with false contextual information (e.g. sharing an image of an attack as something that happened recently, while it is from an event that happened years ago);
  • content can be misleading through bias in the frame it uses;
  • headlines or supporting visuals can be used to imply something that is not supported by the content.

Resources for journalists and policymakers

UNESCO: Journalism, Fake News and DisinformationA handbook written by experts exploring the very nature of journalism. An essential tool for understanding how information is shared and usedAlbaninan, Arabic, Bosnian, Dutch, French, Indonesian, Kazakh, Khmer, Kyrgyz, Macedonian, Malaysian, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Tajik, Tetum, Thai, Vietnamese

International Center for Journalists (ICFJ): A short guide to the history of ‘fake news’ and disinformation
A learning module for journalists to understand the historical context of ‘information disorder’. Propaganda through mis- and disinformation has existed since at least Roman times. English
European Commission: A multi-dimensional approach to disinformation

A report by a high level group of experts into fake news and online disinformation. The report provides advice on policy initiatives to counter the spread of mis- and disinformation.

The London School of Economics (LSE): Tackling the Information Crisis: A policy framework for Media System Resilience
This report (by the LSE Commission on Truth, Trust and Technology) outlines the information crisis and offers evidence of the harm caused. The report ends with recommendations for a new policy framework.English

The ‘fake news’ discourse

The current discourse around ‘fake news’ risks undermining the ability of media outlets to hold powerholders to account. The term is frequently used to attack the credibility of independent media outlets and to dismiss criticism on powerholders.

The problem with the term ‘fake news’

The European Commission’s High Level Expert Group on Misinformation and Fake News wrote the following on why they had avoided the term ‘fake news’ in their March 2018 report to the EC, calling the term inadequate and misleading:

Firstly the term is inadequate to capture the complex problem of disinformation, which involves content that is not actually or completely “fake” but fabricated information blended with facts, and practices that go well beyond anything resembling “news” to include some forms of automated accounts used for astroturfing, networks of fake followers, fabricated or manipulated videos, targeted advertising, organized trolling, visual memes, and much more. (….)

Secondly, the term ‘fake news’ is not only inadequate, but also misleading, because it has been appropriated by some politicians and their supporters, who use the term to dismiss coverage that they find disagreeable, and has thus become a weapon with which powerful actors can interfere in circulation of information and attack and undermine independent news media. Research has shown that citizens often associate the term ‘fake news’ with partisan political debate and poor journalism broadly, rather than more pernicious and precisely defined forms of disinformation.

Unfortunately, there is a trend of leader of democratic countries accusing the media of producing “fake news” in order to evade legitimate criticism. Opponents of press freedom in non-democratic countries take advantage of this anti-media stance by discrediting mainstream news coverage.

Read more: see for some examples this article from the Guardian for an (incomplete) list of authoritarian leaders who, since the election of US President Trump in 2016, have started to use the term ‘fake news’ to discredit their critics.