We're all aware that navigating today's online ecosystem involves inevitable and unfortunate encounters with false and misleading information. Having a solid understanding of the kinds of misinformation we might run into can improve our ability to detect it. As citizens in a democracy, we have an obligation to think critically and make decisions based on reliable information.
Let's take a quick look at some of the most common types of misinformation. Keep in mind these terms are fluid and should be thought of as general concepts, rather than fixed definitions.
Misinformation is a basic term that refers to false information. Someone might post or share misinformation unintentionally because they believe it's true. There may or may not be an intent to deceive, but the misinformation still makes its way out into the world and has the power to influence others. Did you ever hear a piece of juicy gossip that later turned out to be untrue? That's misinformation.
Disinformation represents a subset of misinformation. Disinformation is false or distorted information that is spread with a purposeful intent to influence, manipulate, or deceive its target audience. Examples of disinformation would include a politician intentionally spreading unsubstantiated rumors about an opponent, or a corporation knowingly misleading the public about the damaging effects of its products.
Misinformation and disinformation can take many forms.
A hoax is simply a fabricated story, which often takes the form of a humorous prank, such as an April Fool's joke. Like most forms of misinformation, hoaxes are nothing new. In 1835, a New York newspaper, The Sun, published several false stories about aliens living on the moon. But hoaxes may also be designed to serve a more complex purpose, whether for good or bad. For example, physicist Alan Sokal successfully published a meaningless paper in a peer-reviewed journal in 1996 as a way of critiquing popular academic theories of the day.
Some misinformation comes in the form of satire or comedy. Websites like The Onion make us laugh with their satiric news stories. Regardless of their intent, these stories can be surprisingly believable at times. In a few cases, professional news reporters have even believed these stories and shared them. If something sounds too funny or too bizarre to be true, it might be misinformation.
And that brings us to fake news, which we've heard a lot about over the last several years. At a basic level, “fake news” is a term used to describe any kind of false or deceptive news story, often one that is circulating on social media. “Fake news” might be a hoax or satire. Or it might be a lie with a manipulative political objective. In other cases, “fake news” may simply be clickbait intended to generate revenue on social media platforms. Ironically, the term “fake news” has also been used by politicians to discredit legitimate journalism. As citizens, we have to be on guard whenever accurate information is disingenuously labeled “fake news” by those with a political motivation to hide the truth.
Often associated with the concept of disinformation, propaganda is a form of political persuasion intended to manipulate an audience into adopting a certain point of view or acting a certain way. Propaganda is not always 100% false, but it's usually one-sided and emotionally charged. Propaganda often includes wild leaps in logic and may take statements or images out of context. Campaigns to persuade citizens to go to war, or political efforts to marginalize or oppress certain groups, often involve propaganda across a range of media.
Astroturfing is a type of political or corporate propaganda that creates a misleading impression of grassroots support among a large group of people. One of the most famous examples is Working Families for Walmart, an organization funded by the company to promote their interests but camouflaged as an independent grassroots organization.
Conspiracy theories are also common on the web. While there are many possible definitions of this term, at a basic level, a conspiracy theory is a narrative suggesting that the official or widely accepted version of an event is false and that powerful unseen forces are controlling things behind the scenes. Some elements of a conspiracy theory may be based in reality, but unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that lack legitimate evidence can cause real damage. The Nazis used popular conspiracy theories as part of their campaign to oppress Jewish people, and many of these false theories continue to circulate today.
One of the most recent developments in misinformation is the deepfake, a manipulated image or video that is indistinguishable from an actual recording. Deepfakes can make it look like somebody said something they didn't say, or did something they didn't do. These days, seeing is not necessarily believing. Given the sophistication of modern technology, deepfakes can be difficult to detect, so it's important to do some additional research to verify the truth of an image or video.
So those are a few of the terms that can help us recognize and detect different kinds of misinformation. Why is it so difficult to deal with the problem of misinformation? Here are two bonus terms that provide some insight.
Motivated reasoning is our tendency to be less skeptical of information that reinforces what we already believe. We want to feel good about ourselves, so we tend to believe things that make us feel like we're right and ignore things that might contradict our views. Motivated reasoning makes it easier for us to believe misinformation that confirms our pre-existing beliefs.
The continued influence effect refers to the ongoing influence of misinformation on our beliefs, even after it has been corrected. In other words, misinformation sticks in our brains and may continue to affect how we think and behave, despite the fact that we know it's false.
This means the deck is stacked against us. There's a lot of misinformation out there, and in many ways, our brains are wired to believe it. That's why we have to maintain critical awareness when reading and sharing information.
Citizen Literacy was created by Robert Detmering, Amber Willenborg, and Terri Holtze for University of Louisville Libraries and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License.