In today’s world, it is very easy to create, modify, fabricate and widely share different messages. The information environment is polluted in many ways. Even if the information itself is genuine, it might be used out of context and turned into a propaganda weapon. So, what can help us distinguish different forms of information disorder?
There are two main questions we need to get the answer to first in order to learn more about the nature of the message we want to analyze:
Concerning truthfulness/ falsehood: "Is the information true or false?", "Can you spot some true and possibly some false elements in it?"
Concerning its purpose and the intention hidden behind it: "Was it created with the intent to manipulate people?", "Was the intent to do any harm?"
Let’s first take a look at the three main terms related to information disorder and its mechanisms.
1. Disinformation is false or misleading piece of information spread with the intention to deceive or cause harm. It can appear in the form of the fabricated or deliberately manipulated audio/ visual content, intentionally created conspiracy theories or rumors spread to harm or cause distrust. Any examples? There are plenty around us! When a blogger intentionally changes scientific facts to support his/ her conspiracy theory, it’s disinformation. Or when people in power share only selected piece of information together with their biased commentary, which distorts reality, it's also disinformation.
2. When disinformation is shared without the intent to manipulate people, it is called misinformation. An example would be sharing a rumor that something has happened, before finding out it’s actually false. We can also categorize as misinformation unintentional mistakes, such as inaccurate photo captions, dates, statistics, and translations, or when satire is taken seriously.
3. The last type is malinformation: it is deliberate publication of private information for personal, corporate or political, rather than public interest, such as: revenge porn or leaking certain emails hacked in order to damage someone’s reputation. It can also include deliberate change of context, date or time of the original content.
To make things simple, many use the term "disinformation" as a general reference to all of the above three categories.
Disinformation can take many different forms. The most common ones are:
1. SATIRE OR PARODY
No intention to cause harm but has potential to fool.
Although satire or parody can even be treated as forms of art, they can be also used to intentionally spread rumors and conspiracies, and–in case of any accusations–they can get off lightly as something that shouldn’t be treated seriously/ literally. This form of information disorder can also easily get re-shared or distorted, and start functioning outside of its original, humorous context.
2. FALSE CONNECTION
When headlines, visuals or captions don’t support the content.
Although we can at first think that false connections, such as, for example, clickbait headlines, can do no harm, only irritate; in a larger perspective this practice may undermine trust in media and promote polarization.
3. MISLEADING CONTENT
Misleading use of information to frame an issue or individual.
It’s about cropping photos, or choosing quotes or statistics selectively in order to support an argument. We can often see this kind of manipulated content without even knowing about it, as spotting it requires having some specific knowledge, doing research, and checking the sources (for example, the source of a quote in a given message).
4. FALSE CONTEXT
When genuine content is shared with false contextual information.
A picture reshared to fit a new narrative would be an example here. It is a powerful form of information disorder, as the content used is genuine, so it cannot be denied, but is reframed in a dangerous way to support a certain point.
5. IMPOSTER CONTENT
When genuine sources are impersonated.
This form of disinformation takes advantage of the trust you may have in a specific organization, person, brand etc. Many phishing and smishing (phishing of mobile phones via messages) attempts are created this way: some well-known brand's logo or name is used in order to create an impression that you're receiving a legit content. And it's enough to be distracted or in a hurry, to sometimes fall victim to such manipulation.
6. MANIPULATED CONTENT
When genuine information or imagery is manipulated to deceive.
Usually it concerns photos and videos that are altered in such way that they seem real enough, but the overall meaning of the genuine content is different than intended. You can see examples of such photos and videos analyzed by one of our experts, Dren Gerguri, PhD.
7. FABRICATED CONTENT
New content is 100% false, designed to deceive and do harm.
When the content is completely false, the only limit is the imagination of the creator's of such content. Distinguishing between the real and fabricated content is extremely difficult to the naked eye. If you have seen any "deepfakes", that can be often categorized as “fabricated content”, you know how deeply it impacts our trust in the messages we see.
If you want to learn more about disinformation and what you can do when you face it, register for our free online self-paced course: “Countering Disinformation”. The mere 60 minutes you will have spent doing the course, can visibly help you to critically assess the information you process daily and boost your digital resilience!
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