Increasingly during an election year, the terms “misinformation” and “disinformation” have become more common, especially when it comes to media coverage of elections.
But what do those terms mean and how have they become an issue for how elections are covered?
Fergus Bell, the founder and CEO of Fathm, an independent news lab and consulting organization, offers insight into key questions surrounding misinformation and disinformation.
For further information, watch the above video with Bell.
What is the difference between misinformation and disinformation?
Bell said that misinformation is something that is unintentionally shared, whether it’s a mistake, something that is misread or something that is shared out of context. Disinformation is something that is wrong and shared intentionally, with a purpose around the actions.
How can misinformation turn into disinformation?
Bell said this can happen easily when there are issues that people are interested in or grabbing onto.
“There’s often a kernel of truth in a disinformation campaign --certainly in misinformation,” Bell said. “It’s because it helps with that spreading. If you are a regular person, you might think, ‘Well I’ve heard that before’ or ‘Yes, I remember that.’ You might not know where and you might not know the exact detail, but that is enough that might allow someone to feel more comfortable sharing it. That’s how it works.”
How dangerous can disinformation be?
Bell said there’s been instances were disinformation has led to elections being impacted and even deaths in some parts of the world.
Bell said there was evidence that disinformation was used in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.
“We have found the social posts,” Bell said. “They are designed to sow doubt or they are designed to create situations where people are pitched against each other. It’s got to be something that’s a little bit more vague, that people can’t quite latch onto to say whether this is true or not true.”
Bell said there are cases in Asia and Africa where people have been lynched over disinformation campaigns.
“We’ve also seen disinformation campaigns in other places in the world where we’ve seen Democracy be disrupted,” Bell said. “The intent there is to disrupt an election. It’s dangerous in terms of Democracy and it’s dangerous in terms of people’s lives.”
What steps can people take to prevent misinformation and/or disinformation?
Bell offered the following ways where misinformation and disinformation can be prevented:
- Check the source and identify why someone might be sharing or creating it.
- Check the history of person sharing it.
- Copy and paste info onto a network.
- Don’t assume everything is misinformation. A majority of information is genuine content. It’s important to be smart and have diverse sources.
“Don’t just follow accounts you agree with,” Bell said. “Don’t allow an algorithm to serve you content that you would only find interesting. If you are seeing things on social media, look for sources outside of social media.
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