Misinformation vs. Disinformation vs. Mal-information

Quite a bit of my consulting work lately has focused on helping clients counter false information spreading online.  This sort of engagement can very quickly lead to rough and murky waters, especially if an organization does not arm itself with proper ongoing situational awareness tools in order to differentiate between the bad actors who are steering the narrative and the people unknowingly posting false information.

Much of the discourse on ‘fake news’ these days conflates three notions: misinformation, disinformation and mal-information. It’s important to distinguish messages that are true from those that are false, and messages that are created, produced or distributed by “agents” who intend to do harm from those that are not. I recommend that you ensure your online comms and digital engagement folks are well versed in key definitions from the Council of Europe’s Information Disorder Report:

  • Misinformation: Information that is false, but not created with the intention of causing harm (e.g. someone posting an article containing now out of date information but not realizing it).
  • Disinformation:  Information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization or country (e.g. a competitor purposely posting false statistics about your organization with an intent to discredit you)
  • Mal-information:  Information that is based on reality, used to inflict harm on a person, organization or country (e.g. someone using a picture of a dead child refugee (with no context) in an effort to ignite hatred of a particular ethnic group they are against.

I find that misinformation can be identified rather quickly by scanning through the history of the account in question to determine if there is a clear pattern of posting erroneous content or if this was a one-off innocent mistake.

The latter two can also be easily identified after some basic digging but are generally tricky to differentiate. Think of mal-information as containing something real that was taken completely out of context and with malicious intent, whereas disinformation contains outright lies with no element of truth. Here are some tools to help you identify this sort of content.

I like to evaluate these on a case by case basis (to determine if and where to engage) by doing a thorough scan of their social networks using social network analysis (SNA) techniques (refer to Slide 38 in this presentation I posted up in the past). From there you can find out how much influence they have in their network, who their key sources of information are, how much influence their network has in the wider topical discussion and any places that you could potentially leave a well-crafted counter-response pointing to factual information without engaging directly and/or entering directly into the troll sewers. Instead, I like to think of it as dropping a permanent note in the troll sewers so that it can be found by other potentially vulnerable innocent souls that accidentally wander in there. Good luck!

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