Misinformation vs Disinformation - how high is the risk?
The words of the decade;
It seems like one can`t go anywhere on the Internet without seeing these terms in one form or another; regardless of the context or topic. Fake news, propaganda, false information call it what you will - it's everywhere on the Internet. According to the website of the World Health Organization, “four studies reviewed in a paper looked at the proportion of health misinformation on social media, and found that it reached up to 51% in posts associated with vaccines, up to 28.8% in posts associated with COVID-19, and up to 60% in posts related to pandemics. Among YouTube videos about emerging infectious diseases, 20–30% were found to contain inaccurate or misleading information.”
The term misinformation is applied across a range of topics, contexts,and for a range of reasons. Due to this, and “to the inherent dynamism of the social media ecosystem, its definition is increasingly elusive.” It is not always easily spotted at first glance. For these reasons, defining what misinformation and disinformation are are not easy tasks. This is without mentioning distinguishing between them.
Misinformation is generally incorrect, inaccurate, or deceptive information. There may or may not be intent to deceive. Dissent, in other words. Information diverging from the consensus to some degree.
The first point I`ll make is that dissent can certainly be healthy; and even beneficial in some cases. Think Galileo and his observation of the earth rotating around the sun not initially being accepted or believed by the Catholic church. Semmelweis and the initiation of handwashing not being widely accepted by the medical community, Darwin and the theory of evolution not initially being accepted. All principles we take for granted today. Some of the most important advancements in science, politics and other areas arise through dissent. The key point is; dissent can be healthy and even drive significant progress. This can apply to any area. So I'm absolutely not advocating for complete authoritarianism and not allowing anyone to speak their mind.
That said; fake news can take a darker turn. Disinformation vs. misinformation can really be summed up in a single word. Intent. Disinformation involves a deliberate attempt to deceive. Think companies quoting inaccurate or even blatantly incorrect statistics to sell a product; a politician exaggerating or downplaying events as their political agenda requires. It can have a serious impact. Further,misinformation can take unanticipated forms - in fact, an article published on theconversation.com June 30th, 2023 described how misinformation commonly takes the unexpected form of images.
For instance, a picture was repeatedly posted as “proof” that now-former Fox News anchor Chris Wallace was a close associate of sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein. In reality, the grey-haired man in the image is not Epstein but actor George Clooney.” In terms of political misinformation, the Brazilian government circulated false information on politics COVID 19 deaths as well as its treatment and prevention. A 2021 analysis found that this occurred primarily through channels such as WhatsApp, and social media channels such as Facebook using messaging as well as images and videos. What's also interesting is that it had greater reach in certain regions of the country including the Southeast and Northeast of Brazil.
So what`s clear is that free expression is important; however there are consequences to allowing information to spread completely unregulated. There are literally countless examples to highlight this According to the website of the World Health Organization; infodemics and misinformation negatively affect people's health behaviours. This is particularly true during pandemics, outbreaks, and disasters; and can by extension increase vaccine hesitancy and delay the provision of medical supplies to one or more geographical regions. Further, during the 2022 United States Midterm Election, some of the most radical politicians in the Republican Party were fueled by the unfounded belief that the previous presidential election in 2020 was stolen.
Also, it isn't simply the misinformation itself that's concerning. It's how multifaceted it`s become in the age of AI. Software programs can design and share breathtaking images, headlines, and videos in a matter of moments. This makes it almost impossible to interpret what is real and what isn't anymore. According to an article on theconversation.com; “deep fakes” are AI generated images that can appear more genuine than real photos. They are named this due to the technology used to create them; deep learning neural networks. With such depth of learning it will not be surprising that significant consequences can result from the use of this technology. For example; in early 2023 a fake LinkedIn profile was created with an AI generated profile picture. It gained media attention because it successfully connected with US officials and various other respected individuals. The article also describes how this can be used for malicious purposes such as political propaganda, information warfare and espionage purposes.
According to an article published on theconversation.com on July 27th, 2017, a test was conducted on approximately 700 undergraduate students. They were shown a variety of screenshots of actual news website banners — ranging from established news sources like the the Globe and Mail, more partisan sources like Fox News and the Huffington Post, online aggregators like Yahoo! News and social media outlets like Upworthy — and were asked to rate their legitimacy on a scale of zero to 100.
Also included were actual screenshots of fake news websites, some of which gained prominence during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. One of these fake news sources was a website called ABCnews.com.co, which is made to look like ABC News, and featured some false content that gained prominence after it was retweeted by Eric Trump. The others were the Boston Tribune and World True News.
The findings are troubling. Even though the sample group was mostly composed of politically sophisticated and engaged news consumers (by their own admission), the respondents attributed more legitimacy to fake news outlets like ABCnews.com.co or the Boston Tribune than to Yahoo! News, an actual news organisation.
Although these results are preliminary and part of a larger study, they are consistent with other research: people, and especially young people, have a hard time separating good sources of information from questionable ones or determining whether a photograph is authentic or fabricated.
However this was an organised controlled environment. Even in such an environment the study demonstrated the difficulty people had separating fact from fiction. One can imagine, then, how this becomes much more complex in the real - world online environment. Up to billions of posts, photos, and videos are uploaded and shared on every social media platform daily. This scale is difficult to even conceptualise. This is without even mentioning distinguishing which are genuine and which are less so. In fact in some cases; AI generated photos can appear more authentic than real photos! Thus; improvements in the quality of computer generated media is outpacing the development of technology to identify it.
The next logical question is how to address this? In an ever-changing online environment, how do we ensure the integrity of information? The first strategy employs the adage “prevention is better than cure.” That is; sources and types of misinformation are outlined before people see it. This is termed “prebunking”; and there is a growing body of literature on the topic. For instance; reading about clickbait or sensationalist headlines might make people less vulnerable to vaccine myths. Reading about fake headlines may prime people to notice fake headlines when they encounter them. Presenting examples of fake headlines alongside genuine ones may have a similar effect. There are also various videos, games, and other media that demonstrate how to identify misinformation in a more interactive manner.
For instance, in September 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a post called “Be careful what you share. Things aren't always what they seem online.” The post describes the impact of false information and fake news. It also lists several strategies to identify reliable information. This is called the “SHARE” strategy. In the WHO post, it explains it in the context of COVID 19 misinformation, however the principles can be applied to misinformation in any area. Knowing that, it is worth taking some time to reflect on this strategy.
The “S” stands for “Sources.“ It involves relying on accurate sources such as the WHO website (the s component). The H component stands for “Headline.” That is; headlines do not always reflect the full scenario. They can be emotive and exaggerate facts for engagement. This is regardless of where they are encountered; social media, news articles, video titles and so on. “A” stands for ”Analyse.” That is, analyse the facts presented. Are their facts based on reliable sources, like the WHO/CDC? It's also advisable to check if any facts seem unrealistic or exaggerated. The WHO post also states that independent fact checking services are correcting inaccurate information online about SARS-CoV2 and the vaccines each day. “R” stands for “Retouched.” Have images or other media in the article been edited in any way? Maybe they are misleading? Are there details in the photos or media that raise your suspicions? “E” stands for “Error”. Check for any mistakes. Are there inaccuracies or outright errors in one or more of their facts? Also, here is something one may not think about, but is in fact critical. Are these facts important to the central claims of the article? If they are, the article is likely not to be based on a reliable base of knowledge.
The CDC, another authoritative source of information, also published a piece advising on how to address misinformation. Again, it was put in the context of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, but can be applied to any topic.
The first piece of advice they offer is to listen to and analyse misinformation circulating within your community. This can be either an online community or in person. Monitor social media channels, newspapers (if your community still uses them), Make yourself aware of the most common pieces of misinformation circulating in your community. It is also important to keep a log of this over time. In the CDC`s own words;; “this can help you understand where, when, why, and how misinformation is spreading in your community.”
The second piece of advice they give is to actively engage with your community. With respect to this; there are several questions to answer. Are there gaps in information? If so, the information can be provided to them. Maybe there are different perceptions of the issue within the community? If so; why? Are there specific pieces of misinformation that are commonly believed in the community? Why? If there are, accurate information could be provided to them. Another question I`ll add is; who does the community trust? Is there someone they engage with on an everyday basis? Someone who holds influence within the community maybe? If it is a religious community for instance, a religious leader may be an effective advocate for vaccines, or for accurate information on any topic. If they are an especially patriotic community, perhaps an advocate for their country would be effective. Are they sports fans? Maybe a well-known athlete should be approached.
In addition, the CDC also advises that we share accurate, clear, and detailed information with our communities. This can be done through a variety of mediums; given how sophisticated the Internet is now. Social media channels, websites, newsletters, and anywhere your community gets their information. That said; despite the day and age we are in, not everyone has access to the Internet, or uses it. Older communities would be an example of this. Thus it is crucial to use tools that do not rely on it. These include radio, television, newspaper, mail, and so on. The key idea is to make accurate information as easily accessible to as many people as possible. It is also important to think about the communication style used in messaging. A community very technologically advanced and very engaged in scientific research would need an entirely different style of communication than a community less engaged in these developments. It's important to reflect on what type of communication would work best.
So; to summarise. Misinformation and disinformation are not always clear-cut, and the intent behind sharing both of them can differ widely. They can have large scale consequences over various regions of the world. This is especially true in times of emergency, such as outbreaks, epidemics of pandemics. Political elections may also be affected. AI developments also lend to making fake news and media increasingly sophisticated and difficult to distinguish from genuine sources of information. Studies also show that fake news can actually be rated as more legitimate than authentic news sources; even in those who are politically aware and sophisticated news consumers. Anyone can fall prey to fake news. Further, this was in a controlled, experimental environment. In the real world internet, it becomes ever more complex to separate fact from fiction. So, how should we address this? There are a variety of sources of vaccine hesitancy; therefore addressing it requires a multifaceted approach. Authorities like the WHO and CDC suggest a variety of approaches in the context of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and disinformation. However, the principles can be applied to any topic. These include verifying the accuracy of sources; headlines, and facts. Checking for misleading or exaggerated details in media accompanying posts or articles also helps verify the accuracy of the accompanying information. It is also important to attempt to address misinformation within our communities individually. This can look like analysing misinformation gaining traction within your own community. It also means identifying information gaps and perceptions within one's own community. Further, sharing accurate, clear and detailed information is crucial. It's not just the information; but how it is communicated that is important. It's important to think about the communication style our community uses; and who would be the most effective person to relay that information.
So remember; there are people behind every image, every statistic, every patient case study. So when you hit “post”, you`re not just sharing information. You`re impacting lives; perhaps on a very large scale. Let's keep that in mind. Thanks for reading!