Daniel Sacerio|Nov 10, 2020

A 2018 study from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab analyzing the spread of 126,000 stories on Twitter highlighted an ever-increasingly concerning trend on social media. It took truthful tweets six times as long as fake ones to spread across Twitter to 1,500 people. In addition, falsehoods were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than the truth. 

As you can imagine, unpacking fake news and my personal favorite “alternative facts” is messy. We could simply explain them away as a social media issue, but these now household terms are related to two larger phenomena: misinformation and disinformation. While these two words have been used interchangeably, they are VERY different.

Here’s the tea: Disinformation is intended to mislead, misinformation is not.

Disinformation refers to intentionally disseminating false information, whereas misinformation is defined as the action of unintentionally misinforming, giving erroneous or incorrect information.

Disinformation is a loan translation from the Russian term dezinformatsiya that was coined by none other than Joseph Stalin after the KGB’s black propaganda wing. It should come as no surprise then that some of the most recent disinformation campaigns have originated in Russia. Two of the most high-profile examples are the Russian attempts to influence the United States 2016 presidential election and the 2016 Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. Rusee used an influence campaign that “combined covert cyber operations (hacking, troll farms, and bots) with overt actions (dissemination of disinformation by Russian-backed media) in an effort to undermine public trust in the electoral process and influence perceptions of the candidates.” (Weapons of Mass Distraction: Foreign State-Sponsored Disinformation in the Digital Age).

We live in the age of information overload and it is not an overstatement to say that combatting disinformation is going to be one of society’s biggest challenges, especially for communications and marketing professionals. It is nearly impossible to fact-check everything, and disinformation has the ability to infiltrate our most trusted sources, as disinformation is most powerful when coming from news sources as it is designed to manipulate the audience by either discrediting conflicting information or supporting false conclusions. A very recent example of this type of disinformation is how some television stations have shared and even peddled election fraud conspiracy theories during the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Since misinformation is an unintentional act, it many times can be the most difficult to look at and diagnose. Humans are imperfect, and the spread of misinformation happens every day. If you are spreading around information that is wrong, but you don’t know it is wrong, then you are, technically, spreading misinformation.

One recent example of the spread of misinformation is with the world’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. In mid-February, the World Health Organization announced that the new coronavirus pandemic was accompanied by an “infodemic” of misinformation. According to a study by the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford, nearly 60 percent of COVID-19 misinformation was truthful information that had been spun, twisted, recontextualized or re-worked, rather than completely fabricated and shared across multiple mediums.

Now that we have the basics down, are there multiple types of misinformation or disinformation? 

Of course, and here’s a quick guide:

  1. Satire or parody: No intention to cause harm but has potential to fool
  2. Misleading content: Misleading use of information to frame an issue or individual
  3. Imposter content: When genuine sources are impersonated
  4. Fabricated content: New content is 100 percent false, designed to deceive and do harm
  5. False connection: When headlines, visuals or captions don’t support the content (clickbait)
  6. False context: When genuine content is shared with false contextual information
  7. Manipulated content: When genuine information or imagery is manipulated to deceive

So where does that leave “fake news” and “alternative facts”? “Fake news” refers to news articles or other items that are deliberately false and intended to manipulate the viewer and “alternative facts” are arguments used to support claims that do not conform to objective reality. Based on these definitions, both would fall under disinformation as they’re knowingly spreading false information.  

How do we advise and guide our organizations or clients through situations involving misinformation or disinformation?

The most successful disinformation and misinformation is considered to be “information” because of its manipulative power. But not all hope is lost.

As Laura Guitar from rbb’s Reputation & Risk Advisors points out in her webinar “Predictive Communication Webinar: The Bridge Between Crisis Planning + Reaction,” if we understand the patterns and the emerging technology, we can get ahead of those messages with negative intention through predictive communication powered by digital intelligence.

To truly move the needle against misinformation and disinformation, we have to predict these behaviors tied to falsified information. While we may not be able to prevent the actions tied to misinformation or disinformation, we can certainly prevent the fall-out and get ahead of a particular message or post before it becomes viral. 

For example, rbb’s in-house digital practice offers a robust suite of digital intelligence tools that can be put to work in a monitoring dashboard measuring everything from trending topics and competitor insights. These dashboards can also identify potential crisis situations tied to misinformation and disinformation through the detection of predetermined criteria tied to disinformation campaigns in videos, posts and other content.

As integrated communicators, we have digital intelligence models at our fingertips to track the who, what, where, when and why of any issue and we can be utilized to combat false information infiltration by also getting efficient. Along with predictive analysis models or other data driven approaches, efficiency is reached by knowing the ins and outs of our clients’ industries by identifying the right audience, content, influencers, channels and language to own positive content and suppress disinformation and misinformation.

We know the issue of misinformation and disinformation exists, and it’s clear that for our industry it will be one of our greatest challenges now and in the future. But now that we have an arsenal of pre-emptive tools, we can truly get ahead of the onslaught of fake news and alternative facts.


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