Disinformation and Misinformation as Mechanisms of Hate
New terms and manifestations of age-old issues and “wicked problems”
The internet can be a hateful place. It can also be fun, entertaining, insightful, inspiring, connecting, and so many other descriptions.
Call me a bit of a downer this week, but let’s talk about disinformation and misinformation.
Echo chambers are not really anything new. The internet certainly makes it easier, though. One of the most important newly prominent concepts is the “infodemic.” Virtually unknown before that fateful time of March 2020, the infodemic presents a unique example of the influence of social media on human behavior.
The World Health Organization defines an infodemic as too much information including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak. It causes confusion and risk-taking behaviors that can harm health. It also leads to mistrust in health authorities and undermines public health response. Basically, there is too much information and it makes it easy for those with ill intent to insert their own self-serving messaging. Social media and, broadly, the internet make this information travel even faster. This feels… well… wildly unsurprising.
These can be mechanisms of hate.
Misinformation and disinformation are key topics, particularly in the social media and hate spaces. Unlike the infodemic, misinformation is not new. In fact, it is so deeply human, it likely has existed throughout human history. In this situation, it is somewhat important to differentiate the terms. So, let’s explore!
Misinformation is incorrect or misleading information. Common topics that pop up in the “top stories” are things like climate change, international relations, and geopolitics. General categories are climate change, health and science, foreign policy, migration, elections, and similar.
People spread misinformation online, typically without malice. The damage, however, still can be significant. Incorrect information spreads and people are exposed to this content through multiple potential channels. Misinformation studies have gained momentum particularly since the 2016 US Presidential election.
Merriam-Webster defines disinformation as false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.
Basically, disinformation is misinformation with a purpose.
Disinformation and misinformation generally are considered “wicked problems.” Wicked problems generally are characterized by their complexities and the challenges of the problems and solutions. Examples are climate change and topics related to educational policy and public health.
Since disinformation and misinformation are wicked problems, two essential reviews are needed: how to spot it and how to address it.
Stronger.org, an organization that works to stop misinformation about science, medicine, and vaccines, provides a simple guide to spot misinformation, including checking the source, date, data/motive, and verify externally through fact-checking.
The SIFT methodology (based on stop, investigate, find, trace) is a useful acronym to remember. The reader is encouraged to stop, investigate the source, find better content, and trace information to the original location.
The recommended method from the CDC to address misinformation centers on a four part approach: fact, warning, fallacy, fact (this is not a typo. It is bookended with “fact”). This sandwich style approach focuses on providing correct information at the start and end. The leadoff statement is succinct, while the closing fact expands on accurate information with additional explanation. In the middle of this recommended method, a simple warning like “misinformation alert!” is given. Then, the fallacy - the incorrect information being spread - is mentioned with a specific “not true.”
Overall, media literacy is essential for people of all ages. Searching for information on the internet and the importance (and sophistication) of algorithms necessitate an important set of media literacy requirements. Understanding the role of search algorithms, defining search terms effectively, considering keywords, and having a growth mindset are all essential skills.
Disinformation and misinformation are mechanisms of hate. Constant awareness and reflection are essential. Let’s address these situations one wicked problem at a time.