Slacker’s Syllabus: Misinformation and Disinformation

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Have you seen this video of a Ukrainian girl confronting a Russian soldier?

Well, it’s not that.

This is actually footage of Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian activist arrested in 2017 by Israel.

This type of faux coverage isn’t new. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, similar footage out of Palestine, Libya, and other areas of the Middle East has been falsely linked to the conflict in Europe.

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The internet is full of bad information.

It goes by all sorts of names: hoaxes, rumors, “fake news.”

Lately, you might have seen the terms “misinformation” and “disinformation” popping up more often.

These are not terms meant to describe anything you see online that you don’t immediately understand.

But as they’ve become more popular, people have started to throw them around willy-nilly, or use them interchangeably.

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Even the media is guilty of mixing things up.

Look at this Axios story from Monday. While the article and tweet say former President Barack Obama will keynote a disinformation conference, the headline refers to misinformation.

So what do these terms actually mean? And why is it important to keep them straight?

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Let’s start with misinformation.

The City University of New York defines misinformation as “the sharing of inaccurate and misleading information in an unintentional way.”

The TikTok calling Tamimi a Ukranian girl is misinformation — at least on the end of most people who reshared it. Presumably, they didn’t know the caption was false, so they unintentionally shared bad information.

Misinformation is incredibly common.

Saying that isn’t meant to freak you out. As Joan Donovan, the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, tweeted, “There is no communication without misinformation.”

But, Donovan continued, “some lies are profitable and beneficial to a small group pushing them.” That’s where misinformation becomes an issue.

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Disinformation is a whole other problem.

CUNY defines disinformation as “the deliberate dissemination of false or inaccurate information.”

It can be done for several reasons, like to discredit people and organizations, suppress voters, or for financial gain.

Some say satire sites like The Onion are also, technically, disinformation. Others disagree because its content isn’t supposed to be read as true.

There’s been a lot of talk about disinformation campaigns.

Disinformation campaigns are often associated with foreign entities, like Russia, most infamously during the 2016 and 2020 elections.

But the U.S. has used disinformation to target oppressed communities, too. It’s a common tactic against social movements.

Under the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), the FBI published fake stories to sow distrust in people and organizations.

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Disinformation is only perceived as bad when it serves to disrupt the interests of whiteness and white power ... [and] misinformation against non-whites is typically a footnote in history texts and media reports as it serves the telos of American democracy.

How do you spot bad information? How do you spot bad information? How do you spot bad information? How do you spot bad information?

How do you spot bad information? There are a few ways.

Take a hard look at your sources and their biases. We all have them — even me! Ask yourself how someone’s biases shape the stories they tell.

Consider who funds or owns the content you consume, too. Because Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, for example, it’s not my go-to for hard reporting on Amazon.

Both misinformation and disinformation easily spread through images.

Before you share any photos or video, fact-check them. This can be as easy as doing a reverse image search on a picture.

You should also ask yourself a few questions like: Who first posted this? Can I trust them? Does the date correspond with claims people are making?

Lastly: Read more than the headline.

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Diversify your sources!

Most people take that as not relying on your timeline to tell you the news.

That’s part of it. But you also shouldn’t solely read mainstream media outlets like CNN or CNBC.

Independent media does a lot of good, hard work. Check out abolitionist-oriented Shadowproof, Logic Magazine for tech-related conversations, or Africa is a Country for analysis from the African left.

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Want to learn more?

Read Fact Check’s article on how to spot fake news.

You can also check out this write-up on a United Kingdom report about misinformation online.