Misinformation, Disinformation, and Bias

Identifying misinformation, its various types, and both personal and news media biases

What is disinformation and "fake news"?

Disinformation and "fake news" both refer to news or real life occurrences that are falsified and that aim to deceive readers, tricking them into believing it is true, factual information. The phrase "fake news" has become politicized and is often used to refer to something that a person doesn't agree with. Most of the time, this guide will use the more neutral word disinformation.

Disinformation:

  • Presents false or misleading information
  • Usually focuses on current events and controversial topics (such as COVID-19)
  • Often has a partisan slant to it
  • Will use emotionally charged language in its headlines (clickbait, for example)
  • Is often published in order to gain revenue through AdSense or other advertisements

Types of disinformation

Most disinformation takes one of four forms:

  • Pure disinformation or "fake news" is stories that have been entirely fabricated to lure traffic, get clicks (i.e., clickbait), and gain profit using intriguing, but deceptive, information that is often sensationalized.
  • Hoax sites are websites that present and share false information with the intent of tricking readers and viewers. These websites are often the hosts of pure "fake news" stories. 
  • Satirical websites and videos present news in a comical or exaggerated way. While satire is not inherently "fake news," it can be particularly misleading when removed from its original context and end up being circulated as "fake news."
  • Born digital images and edited images are images that have been created or manipulated to misrepresent visual reality, such as images of signs or posters that have been edited to say something other than what they originally said. If you come across an image online you suspect may have been doctored or edited in some way, the best way to investigate and debunk it is through a reverse image search.

Red flags

It is common for misinformation, disinformation, and "fake news" to provoke emotional responses to encourage engagement. If you see any posts that contain any of the following (or similar) phrases, the information in the post might be worth investigating.

  • "Make this go viral!"
  • "The media won't report this!"
  • "Let that sink in!"
  • "There are no coincidences!"
  • "Do your own research!"

Why do people create disinformation?

Sometimes disinformation is created due to an error, mistake, or misunderstanding on the part of an individual or group posting to a wider audience. The people creating and spreading this type of dis- and misinformation are typically sharing what they genuinely believe to be true, without digging deeper and fact-checking.

But quite often disinformation is posted by people or groups with less altruistic intentions. Here are five broad categories that tend to motivate the creation of disinformation or "fake news." 

  • Financial gain. A person or group creates disinformation to make money off the number of clicks, shares, or views on their post or website. This revenue is usually gained through advertisements on the web page. 
  • To increase influence and gain more followers/interaction. A person or group creates or shares disinformation to bolster their status on social media through more engagement with their posts. 
  • To create mischief. A person or group creates or shares disinformation because they enjoy tricking and deceiving others. 
  • To enforce political and/or social divisions. A person or group creates or shares disinformation because they wish to cause or further deepen rifts between two or more political and/or social groups. 
  • To undermine trust.  A person or group creates or shares disinformation because they wish to plant seeds of doubt and mistrust in a public figure, political movement, company, etc. 

Many of these motivations explain why people spread and share misinformation as well. Regardless of whether a person believes a story, they may share a post on social media because they know it will encourage engagement and interaction with their account. Likewise, someone may share a fabricated story because it supports their negative views of a person, group, or organization, and they wish to undermine trust or enforce political or social divisions. 

Here is a BBC News video that describes the types of people who create and spread "fake news" and some examples of their motivations.

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