The Difference Between Misinformation and Disinformation

Written and Fact-Checked by 1440 Editorial Staff
Last updated

With a twenty-four-hour news cycle, journalists and editors often have to deliver the news fast.  For this reason, they may make mistakes during research, interviews, fact-checking, or writing, which can result in errors in the final reporting. But these honest mistakes are not in the same category as news reports that intentionally fabricate information. 

The creators of fake news stories do not make unintentional errors. Instead, they create false narratives and cite imaginary sources to trick their audience into believing something that isn’t true. 

Both types of wrong information can be damaging. More than half of all people admit to sharing news stories on social media without first checking the information in the story for accuracy, or they simply share articles based on the headline without reading the entire story.  This causes incorrect information to spread quickly. 

Let’s look at the difference between misinformation and disinformation and why it matters.

What Is Misinformation?

Misinformation is unintentional false information. For instance, a journalist could make a factual error when writing a news article by explaining a data point poorly or inaccurately or by failing to fact-check a quote from a source, presenting it as accurate. It is also a common occurrence. 58% of journalists admitted to having conversations with colleagues about errors in reporting in the past year. 

However, false information can still be damaging even though it was due to a mistake because these errors can spread, with readers or viewers sharing the stories before journalists can make corrections. 

Common Sources of Misinformation

Misinformation can be a simple factual error, such as misquoting the number of votes a political candidate gets or using the wrong statistic to back up a claim. Other problems, such as images or headlines that don’t match the context of the story, can also count as misinformation. 

Here are some places where you commonly see misinformation:

  • False or mistaken stories often get shared on social media; 
  • News aggregators without robust fact-checking policies may publish pieces with significant errors; 
  • People can share stories with factual errors from legitimate news sites, assuming they are correct because of the source. 

Only half of the people who share news stories read them completely before sharing. Flawed reports can be shared widely before errors get detected. 

The Impact of Misinformation

Misinformation can cause people to develop opinions based on untrue information. These flawed insights could impact decisions that people make in real life, such as who they vote for in an election or how to act during an emergency or public health crisis. 

In extreme circumstances, the wrong information can impact the wider community. For instance, incorrect reports about COVID-19 caused some people to forgo steps like wearing masks or getting vaccines, potentially exposing more people to the virus.

What Is Disinformation?

Unlike misinformation, disinformation does not involve honest mistakes. It is the deliberate spreading of false or misleading reports to deceive people and achieve a specific goal.  For instance, someone might create fabricated news stories to discredit a political candidate or to secure public opinion on an issue. Fake news usually falls into the category of disinformation because it is created with the intent to trick the audience. 

The motives behind disinformation campaigns can be varied.  Foreign governments might use it to undermine rival nations, and political parties might create fake stories to smear opponents. 

Tactics Used in Disinformation Campaigns

Disinformation campaigns rely on deceptive tactics. One common strategy is to create fake news articles and social media posts that resemble legitimate sources.  These fabricated stories can then be amplified by bots and fake accounts, creating the illusion of widespread support. 

Another strategy is to exploit emotions by using dramatic language and fake visuals.  These campaigns can use headlines or inflammatory language to appeal to people’s fears or prejudices, as evoking these emotions can help a story spread more easily. A related approach is to get people with shared political views to amplify the post by appealing to their worldviews. 

Disinformation can also be used for marketing. Stories could over-promise results for certain products or create false narratives to discredit competitors. 

Identifying the Purveyors of Disinformation

Individuals who create disinformation usually do so in support of a country, organization, or political party. In some cases, governments or companies employ people to create and spread disinformation on their behalf. The end goal of disinformation is not to provide facts, but to manipulate public sentiment in favor of the campaign’s backers, or against its opponents. 

For example, an organization may spread disinformation by publishing fake stories to discredit regulators or to villainize a group that opposes their activities.

The Psychological Impact of Misinformation and Disinformation

Cognitive biases can partly explain why people believe both misinformation and disinformation so easily. These biases predispose us to believe certain things regardless of how true they seem. 

For instance, confirmation bias is a tendency to believe things that support currently-held viewpoints, whether they are true or not. Meanwhile, availability bias describes the belief in information that is easy to remember. This bias helps explain the popularity of viral stories with attention-getting headlines and gratuitous details. 

Because of the many news choices on the internet, you can often end up in an echo chamber, where you only see news that confirms your biases and does not present a balanced viewpoint. This is in part due to what are called filter bubbles, which refers to a phenomenon that results when social media and search algorithms recommend content to a user based on past data. Because of this, filter bubbles only show the user content they are likely to agree with, as opposed to all viewpoints. 

Strategies for Discerning Truth from Falsehood

One of the easiest ways to weed out misinformation or disinformation is to search for other news outlets covering the same story. You can then compare the facts and details of their reporting with the original. 

You can also rely on third-party fact-checking sites like Snopes or Politifact. These sites perform research to check facts in popular news stories. News aggregators sometimes offer the same benefit. However, you should ensure the sites are trustworthy by learning how they fact-check and select stories for aggregation. 

Also, you can research news sites where you read or see stories to learn their editorial processes, fact-checking, and policies of objectivity

Combating Misinformation and Disinformation

Individuals can help combat misinformation and disinformation by cross-checking news stories across different outlets and also examining the legitimacy and editorial policies of news sources. If you are educated on a subject, you could also point out potential inaccuracies to news editors or use reporting features on social media sites to mark posts as fake news. 

Many countries have laws to prosecute fake news or take it offline, and the US Congress is debating legislation aimed at disinformation and misinformation. While these aim to stop the spread of fake news, there are some concerns. In some countries, these laws could allow politicians and businesses to claim that well-sourced and accurate news that criticizes them is fake.

The Role of Education in Fostering Media Literacy

Media literacy is the ability to think critically about news stories and evaluate them for accuracy, bias, and other factors. People of all ages can develop media literacy through education on how to verify information and the development of critical thinking skills, which in turn can help fight against misinformation and disinformation. 

With a healthy skepticism and careful analysis, you can spot fake news and journalistic errors and build well-rounded and well-informed viewpoints on important topics. 

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