Misinformation and disinformation have been around throughout history, but the problem has amplified in the last few years; the relative anonymity of the web and the fast-paced exchange of information on social media platforms have made it easy to disseminate disinformation online.
Let’s start with some definitions.
Misinformation refers to false or out-of-context information that is presented as truth because the communicator does not have the facts straight.
Disinformation is a type of misinformation that is intentionally false and intended to deceive or mislead.
Lee McIntyre and Jonathan Rauch wrote in an Op-Ed in the Washington Post, “attacks on the concept of objective truth are not new. Left-wing attacks on objectivity date at least to the 1970s, with the rise of academic trends such as deconstructionism and postmodernism. The digital era raised the stakes by making misinformation easy to spread. GamerGate and online trolls refined viral outrage. Anti-vaccine groups pioneered digitally amplified misinformation. Russia spread divisive hoaxes and conspiracy theories. Misinformation became weaponized as disinformation — not a mistake but an intentional obfuscation created by those with interests at stake.”
Disinformation thrives on social media because it provokes a strong emotional reaction instead of rational thinking. People who believe in false stories feel compelled to engage with them and share them.
The problem is that every time we engage or share these false stories, we are fueling the fire.
Weapon of Mass Distraction
Specialists in the U.S. intelligence and military communities understand the power of information warfare to divide, disorient and demoralize the public. But few others have paid much attention, and use this tactic to divide, distract, and take away our power to make important decisions.
Disinformation is dangerous. When it is shared by individuals or groups who know it’s wrong yet intentionally spread it, disinformation can cause doubt, divisiveness, and violence.
A Dangerous Choice
In this digital era, information-spread has shifted from centralized media and journalists, who have processes to fact-check, verify and rectify information, to individuals who sometimes lack the interest or skills to discern between fact and fiction online.
Radicalized groups and trolls are dangerous players in the mix. They post inflammatory, insincere, digressive, extraneous, or off-topic messages in online communities, with the intent of provoking readers into displaying emotional responses, or manipulating perceptions.
It’s important to note, however, that some of us, well-intentioned human beings, may be unknowingly adding fuel to the fire. The truth is that, at times, it’s hard to identify disinformation.
The creators of disinformation make content that looks real. Disinformation can take any shape or form. It could be an article from a less-than-credible news source, a meme, a video, a tweet, or an individual Facebook or Instagram post. Disinformation can be tricky to spot and has the pure purpose of triggering your emotions, so you react, engage and share.
If you see something on social media that provokes a strong reaction, we recommend using the SIFT method before sharing: Stop, investigate the source, find better coverage, trace the original context.
Don’t take images at face value. Image manipulation is as old as photography itself but modern technology has made it common and easy to do. It’s easy to take images out of context or manipulate them to create memes.
You can do a reverse Google image search to verify the source of an image or meme. Protest signs, the size of crowds, as well as nature and disaster photos are some of the most commonly manipulated images.
How Can We Protect Ourselves from Disinformation?
Dr. Joan Donovan, from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy recommends:
• Fact-checking controversial issues outside of the internet.
• Reading a newspaper. They are much harder to hoax. They also have a process to rectify information like retractions and corrections.
• Watching local news.
• If information is served to you on social media and you don’t recognize the origin, the byline or the website, it’s a yellow flag and you should be suspicious.
• Asking yourself, who is sharing this? Do they share things from all over the world at all times during the day and night? Could this be a bot? Why was this shared? Who could potentially be benefiting from the spread of this message?
- Remember: usually, the more outrageous the lie is, the more sticky it is.
Protecting Your Mental Health
In the wake of the 2020 election, the pandemic, and social unrest, we’ve needed a greater amount of things explained. We’ve come to rely on social media to understand the world around us and all too often the result is counterproductive. We end up feeling angry, confused, upset, and emotionally exhausted.
It’s easy to numb those feelings, distract ourselves, and step away from them by mindlessly scrolling on social media. But we will pay the price in the long term.
Here’s a simple process to take care of your mental health in the whirlwind of misinformation online:
• When confronted with information that triggers you, take time to recognize how you feel.
• Acknowledge those feelings without judgment.
• Avoid going down the rabbit hole trying to find stories that explain what’s going on around.
• Choose wisely. As you navigate trying to find reliable information, use the SIFT method.
• Know when to take a break from the news. You don’t need to know everything compulsively.
• If you find yourself overconsuming, just get offline, talk to a licensed mental health professional, or an expert on the topic at hand.
• Trust your gut, do your duly fact-checking, make your decision and be confident that you did the best you could with the information at hand.
Social media makes the perfect breeding ground for mis- and disinformation, but with a mindful approach, we can all work together to stop the spread.
- Center for Media and Information Literacy
- Center for Media Literacy
- News Literacy Project
- GCF Global
- All Sides