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Misinformation and disinformation: What it is, how to spot it, what to do

‘Understand that you are being served content via an algorithm’

Information is only a click away, or maybe just a scroll of the screen away.

You can find what you’re looking for in a matter of seconds and then share it just as quickly. You read something, you agree with the message and then you click that little arrow, which signifies share, and off it goes. You’ve just provided friends, relatives, and acquaintances with something to digest. But here’s the question: Did you just pass along misinformation? Many call it “fake news,” others might call it something else, but misinformation is false or inaccurate information, and it’s everywhere.

Where you see it

If you ever look through Facebook or Twitter, you’ve probably seen misinformation. The thing is, you could be staring at it and not know that’s what you’re seeing. Misinformation isn’t always easy to spot.

“Misinformation is incorrect information,” said Ira Hyman, professor of psychology at Western Washington University. “Sometimes misinformation, somebody just makes a mistake and gives an incorrect bit of information.”

Disinformation

Hyman said that happens often. But we all know that some information is bad information and it is sent out on purpose. That kind of information has its own name:

“Disinformation is something that is shared with intent," said Fergus Bell, who is the founder and CEO of fathm, a company that helps newsrooms understand these types of issues.

Bell said disinformation can be part of a campaign designed to sway opinions in one direction or another.

“A disinformation campaign might not be about big-ticket issues, but it might just be about that one issue that would take one person in a key place in order to do it," said Bell. "And that’s the level of greatness, clarity, and precision that some of these campaigns show. They’re also more broadly aimed at undermining certain aspects of everyday life because that also serves that purpose.”

How it spreads

The scary part of social media is how much people believe at face value because it is so easy to pass along a story. Hyman said it all spreads so quickly because “when you encounter some misinformation or part of a disinformation campaign, you may then share that information on social media, then you become an agent spreading that misinformation further."

“And you’re an unwitting agent because it’s not like you’re intentionally trying to mislead people necessarily,” he said. "You just encountered something that seems meaningful to you. And you then share that but now you’ve shared something that is part of a disinformation campaign. And you’re making the world, you know, a less clear place.”

A less clear place, that checks out, right?!

Not all bad

But this isn’t all to say that social media is bad and that all information on social media is bad.

“There is real information on Facebook. So you shouldn’t go on to anything like that assuming that it’s going to be wrong," Bell said.

What you need to be aware of

According to Bell, what you need to keep in mind is that social media is feeding you the information you’re more likely to agree with.

“Understand that you are being served content via an algorithm, you’re being served content that is deliberately being sent to you because you want to you would want to read it, this is something that you might be interested in based on your previous activity," he said.

That means you aren’t necessarily getting the most unbiased, factual news, but maybe instead the information that a platform thinks you’ll like most.

With so much bad information out there, it’s easy to wonder: Is most of it being passed around intentionally or by accident?

“That’s really an interesting question,” said Hyman. “Are there more people who are doing it intentionally or unintentionally? I think there are some people in between who are just doing it for other sorts of reasons.”

There’s more to this story! Next time we’ll find out more about the why and who! Why is this happening and who is behind it? Please comment below if you think you know who’s responsible and why they’re doing it!

More: Trust Index -- fact-checking information


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