It is certainly apparent you can’t believe everything you read (or see) online anymore. Yet the information presented continues to influence opinions, beliefs and actions. What’s the difference between misinformation and disinformation? How can we spot it to protect ourselves from believing lies and worse yet, taking action based on those beliefs?

Misinformation vs Disinformation

Misinformation is sharing false information inadvertently. Like the video of the dolphins in the Venice Canal that seemed so amazing that it was shared all over social media but turned out to be untrue. Or sharing photos that have been photoshopped, without realizing you’ve been duped. It’s the spread of false information that is unintentional.

Disinformation, however, is the weaponized version of misinformation. It is false information spread deliberately to cause damage. A tool long used in espionage, “disinformation campaigns” can be powerful and incredibly destructive. They are often advanced by innocent individuals – “unwitting agents” – and these days spread by bots on the web.

The difference in the two terms comes down to intent. Misinformation can be innocently spread and may or may not cause harm to others, while its darker sister disinformation is motivated by nefarious means and sets out to destroy.

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U.S. Election Exemplifies Both Mis- and Disinformation

As the U.S. Presidential Election approached, warnings were rife to look out for the spread of disinformation. Social media companies took preemptive action to protect users on Election Day, placing warning labels on posts that declared premature victories or unsubstantiated information.

Social media was flooded with disinformation from the candidates and their advisors. Some declared premature victories when votes were still being counted, others attacked the integrity of the voting system and the people involved. When these posts are shared by people who believe them to be true, they are unwitting participants in the disinformation
campaign, influencing the distorted narrative being spread in place of the truth.

For example, the Philadelphia Republican Party tweeted a photo with the caption stating it was an official ballot box in Pennsylvania “being taken away by an unidentified civilian.” The photo has no context, no verification, yet was retweeted by Donald Trump Jr. By the time Twitter slapped a warning label on it, seeds of doubt were already growing in people’s minds as to whether the results could be trusted.

Misinformation and Disinformation in Daily Life

While the U.S. Election can help us realize the impact of disinformation, we must be on guard against it infiltrating our daily lives.

Photoshopped images, fake news stories, conspiracy theories – these can be either disinformation or misinformation, depending on the intent behind sharing. Sharing a photo that you like and later find out to be false versus purposefully creating or sharing a doctored image have two different intentions.

Perhaps one of the scariest and most recently developed way to spread disinformation is through deepfakes. Deepfakes are manipulated video or audio, done so well that you wouldn’t question what you see is anything but real. Video can be fabricated from a single photo, placing you in a place you never actually visited or performing an action you never
actually did. Imagine being on a fake video call, which you think is with someone you know, requesting you to transfer money. Later you get a follow-up email or text, or even a voicemail. How would you know it wasn’t real?

The danger extends further, because even when we find out the video was false, our brains have had an emotional reaction to what we saw and stored it in the ‘if you see it, it must be true’ subconscious. This has grave consequences when cruel people set out to destroy reputations by placing someone’s face in an inappropriate video. It makes an impression whether we want it to or not.

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How to Protect Yourself

Spreading disinformation is an intimidating and scary tactic made simple by our constant connection to the online world. There are a few things you can do to help protect yourself from participating in or being a victim of disinformation campaigns.

  1. Be aware of disinformation and the way it can be used. Most of us don’t realise that disinformation is created to cause a divide or rift between people. And we believe it is the responsibility of social media companies to watch out for disinformation and remove it – though social media companies fear stepping on First Amendment Rights to freedom of speech. To fight it you have to be aware that it exists, and then actively protect yourself from it.
  2. Verify the sources of what you see before you share it. If it seems too good or too terrible to be true, it probably is. If it provokes a strong emotional response, the aim might be to be emotionally manipulative. Sharing things from reputable, verified sources will keep you from being an ‘unwitting agent’ in a disinformation campaign.
  3. Choose your battles and what you air publicly, or even to friends. Constantly airing grievances can come back to bite you if you one day find yourself in a situation. For example, telling your colleagues every Monday morning about your annoying neighbour could easily be flipped against you if that neighbour reports YOU for something. Your colleagues will remember what you’ve said about him and wonder if there isn’t just a little bit of fire around the smoke.
  4. Protect your reputation and character from attack. The best way to keep yourself from being victimised is to mount a defense before you need it. Keeping records of everything that testifies to your good honest character means you will have what you need ready at hand to defend yourself. Scrambling to gather things when you are being attacked is a dangerous method to rely on – people with cruel intentions can easily manipulate or destroy the good things about you.

Reputation Guardian provides a safe, easy way to store your reputation credentials in one place. The secure location keeps your documents from being tampered with. You can easily add things to it as you go, building a bank of solid character materials that will prove who you are and what you stand for. Whether it’s letters of recommendations, credit ratings, photographs – anything that backs up your good character – Reputation Guardian will keep it protected and in one location for you to access when you need it. 

The world is becoming a scarier place every day. We see things in the news that we can’t imagine happening. Make sure you know what’s real and what isn’t, and what to do to keep yourself from being caught up in spreading disinformation.