Information Types: What is the difference? – Disinformation for Beginners, part 1

 By Jessica Grinspoon, Cyabra Team 

The digital era and rise of social media necessitate a responsibility to familiarize ourselves with the factors involved in information warfare. This four-part series is designed to help readers navigate the world of disinformation. The posts contextualize the disinformation phenomena by discussing key terminology as well as the players and content involved. It also reflects on how disinformation can be counteracted. With this new knowledge, together we can mend our perceptions and ensure the information we receive is authentic. 

Part 1: Innocent or Malicious? 

Both misinformation and disinformation are used interchangeably to describe false information. 

However, it is crucial to understand the difference between the two. To put it simply, the distinction lies in the intent. Think mistakes versus lies. 

Misinformation is information that is false, but the person who spreads it believes it to be true. It can be spread deliberately or accidentally, regardless of the motivations behind it.

Disinformation is false information spread to deliberately deceive and inflict harm. Disinformation can be presented through manipulated narratives, facts or propaganda.

In 2020, social media users made an unfounded claim that the Coronavirus was constructed in a Chinese laboratory. This “lab leak” theory started as disinformation because the World Health Organization verified that this is in fact not how the disease originated. However, many people who believed this theory after its birth and shared it with others were propagating misinformation.

It doesn’t matter whether the lie takes place at a dinner party or on national television. If you know it’s not true and you repeat it anyway, you are spreading disinformation. If you believe it to be true, you are spreading misinformation. 

True, but Malicious 

Mal-information on the other hand is information that stems from the truth but is distributed to mislead and inflict harm. Deliberately releasing someone’s private information for personal, political, or corporate gain is how mal-information can be spread. 

For example, mal-information occurred when hackers released Hillary Clinton’s private emails into the public sphere during the 2016 presidential election. The information contained in the emails was authentic, but it was shared to destabilize the Democratic campaign and portray Clinton’s careless handling of classified information to the public.  

If you’ve gotten this far and are still confused, I encourage you to picture the different terms on a spectrum. On one side of the spectrum lies misinformation defined by an unintentional falseness. On the opposite side sits mal-information which is correct information, but spread with an intent to harm. Disinformation rests between the two, characterized by intentional false information that is spread to cause harm. 

Misinformation Disinformation Mal-information
False False True
Unintentional Intentional Intentional

It is important to distinguish messages that are true from those that are false. In the case of mal-information, one should also recognize when true information is distributed to harm rather than serve the public interest. Learning to distinguish between these types is key to training ourselves in identifying and combating disinformation.

Now that we’ve established this difference, let’s get down to the specifics. What does disinformation really mean? Who are the actors involved? How can you spot it? And most importantly, can our diminished sense of reality be restored? 

I will lead you through these murky waters and help you become a disinformation expert. In our next chapter, we will discuss who manipulates the media. 

Disinformation For Beginners series includes: