Misinformation or Disinformation?

Disinformation1 is commonly defined as dissemination of explicitly false or misleading information; and misinformation as the communication of false information without intent to deceive, manipulate or otherwise obtain an outcome.2 Elsewhere, misinformation is used for the deliberate case, both inclusive and exclusive of the accidental case. Other researchers use malinformation to describe information that misleads by lacking proper context for interpretation.

While attacks are inherently intentional, the spread of false information by individuals within an attack may not be. At any rate, we will not explicitly use terminology to draw this distinction here, because intentionality of the misinformation propagating individuals isn’t pertinent to any ultimate harm. That said, we will pause for a moment to address a common critique that claims the expression misinformation attack is incoherent, based on the technical definitions of disinformation and misinformation. It should be clear from our choice of terminology that we do not entirely agree.

  • Misinformation is the commonly-used expression for denoting the superclass in folk language.
  • Misinformation, disinformation and malinformation should be used carefully as technical terms, but worrying too much about their use in derivative terminology is excessively pedantic. Worse, too rigid an adherence to traditional naming and approaches could discourage new, cross-disciplinary participation. Often the terminological hand-wringing gives the strong impression that territorial concerns are forefront in the minds of critics.
  • Misinformation attacks often make extensive use of amplification within existing information environments. Since these amplifying populations are often unaware of their informational error, teasing apart mis- and disinformation amounts to a purely semantic exercise with little to gain—modern tactics are simply orthogonal to this dimension.
  • Similarly, truth is often less important than other (social and cognitive) factors in the impact of an attack. Whether the attacker is aware of their “error” becomes similarly unimportant in this context.

We use misinformation incident (and misinformation campaign) to refer to the deliberate promotion of false, misleading or mis-attributed information. In other words, we are talking about the deliberate promotion of mis-, dis- and malinformation. While these incidents occur in many venues (print, radio, etc), we focus on the creation, propagation and consumption of misinformation online. We are especially interested in misinformation designed to change beliefs in a large number of people, or targeted at influential individuals, such as policymakers, activists and journalists.

  1. This post is reproduced from a section in a recent whitepaper by the Misinfosec Working Group at the Credibility Coalition.

    Co-Chairs: Sara-Jayne Terp, Christopher R. Walker, John Gray
    Treasurer: Danielle Deibler
    Working Members: Pablo Breuer, Renee DiResta, Chau Tong, Olya Gurevich, Courtney Crooks, Daniel Black, Tom Taylor, Maggie Engler

    Although I drafted the original language of this section, it was modified and edited by the entire group, to its substantial benefit. Any remaining shortfalls are my own.

  2. Benkler, Y., R. Farris and H. Roberts, Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

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