Awareness and Complexity – definition of terms

When discussing disinformation, the term ‚fake news‘ is frequently invoked. It is inadequate to describe the breadth of information sharing practices that result in inaccurate or manipulative information. ‚Fake news‘ is frequently used by politicians around the world to discredit unfavourable reporting, thus becoming a tool for circumventing and undermining a free press. As such, it should be avoided in discussions of disinformation.

Understanding and discussing the effects of disinformation requires a definition of the types, phases and elements of information that comprise the current information disorder3. The following framework references the extensive work of Dr Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakshan4.

The Three Types of Information Disorder

The term ‚fake news‘ is often used to lump together three types of information disorder which we will distinguish as follows:

1) ‚Misinformation‘:

information that is inaccurate but was not created with malicious intent. This can also include satire if it is not recognised as such by the interpreter and is shared in the belief that it contains true facts.

2) ‚Disinformation‘:

information that is false and was created to harm a person, group, organisation or state. This includes decontextualising true information to intentionally cause harm.

3) ‚Mal-information‘:

information that is correct but is used to cause harm. For example, publishing private chats or data, so called ‚doxing‘.

The Three Elements of Information Disorder

1) The agent:

who produced and/or distributed the information, and what was their motive? An agent can refer to the mastermind of a disinformation campaign or a supporter of the campaign that spreads it. Sometimes they are one and the same. People who unwittingly spread disinformation because they believe it to be true are also considered agents. The role of an agent can be split amongst several people.

2) The content:

what format is used? What are its characteristics?

3) The interpreter:

how is the content interpreted by the person that received it? Did they react, and if so, how?

The Three Phases of Information Disorder

1) Creation:

the information is created.

2) Production:

the information is turned into news.

3) Distribution:

the information is released, published or spread.

Wardle and Derakshan state that it is important to bear in mind that the agent responsible for creating information is often different from the agent distributing it. As such, the motivations of a mastermind behind a state-funded disinformation campaign are often different from those of a troll spreading disinformation. Once created, information can be altered and recreated in a different format, sometimes leading to a change of distribution channels. The interpretation by the agent and the recipient can change as a consequence. The creation, production and distribution of disinformation is a complex process that should not be viewed as clearly delineated; it can evolve over time, meaning that roles and functions can be ambiguous. Because it includes anyone who unintentionally shares disinformation, which includes debunking and ridicule or satire, the process is further obscured. Wardle and Derakshan illustrate this with the alleged support of Donald Trump by Pope Francis in 2016. To understand and develop solutions for the phenomenon of disinformation it is crucial to keep this complexity in mind. Someone may share mis- or disinformation because they find it funny. However, the recipient may take it at face value and indignantly spread it. Some agents may not have malicious intentions and be unaware they are spreading disinformation, assuming the information to be true. In this case, the intent to manipulate is the creator‘s. To understand the (unwitting) motives for spreading disinformation, media consumption and the psychological effects of sharing information must be considered.

3 Cf. Wardle 2019. 4 Cf. Wardle and Derakhshan 2017.