“Fake News” has become a particularly pervasive and influential part of our society and digital culture. Of course, false news stories have circulated for centuries, but the fact is that now there are just so many more of them, and so many more platforms on which they thrive. It doesn’t help that meme culture has us all liking and sharing links we’ve barely glanced at, never mind actually verifying sources.
We don’t have to tell you that it’s a murky swamp of information our there, folks. But we do want to give you some knowledge with which to fight the information overload and separate the fact from the fiction in a more informed way. More importantly, we want to help you stop being a part of the information disorder machine.
What is information disorder?
The term “fake news” is a rather clumsy way to refer to “false information”, “misinformation” and “disinformation” in the media (and no wonder, considering that it gained it’s popularity from a less-than-eloquent reality-TV star turned head of state). While these concepts are similar, they differ in a number of ways and understanding this can be the first weapon in your tool kit when it comes to sifting through your facebook news feed.
Claire Wardle at First Draft has written the book on information disorder. She says that the two-dimensional term “fake news” doesn’t begin to cover the all the imposter websites which churn out hyper-partisan content, sock puppet accounts posting outrage memes, foreign agents posing as Americans to fuel protests, and conspiracy communities which generate hoaxes. “Most of this content isn’t even fake,” she writes. “It’s often genuine, used out of context and weaponized by people who
know that falsehoods based on a kernel of truth are more likely to be believed and shared”.
This terms failure to capture our new digital reality is on reason that Wardle advocates for this new term, information disorder, to be used instead. She believes that the term “fake news” has become a meaningless tool used to attack journalism and cast doubt on professional journalists. “Words matter,”she says, “and for that reason, when journalists use [the term] ‘fake news’ in their reporting, they are giving legitimacy to an unhelpful and increasingly dangerous phrase.”
Misinformation, according to veteran journalist Sushi Das from RMIT ABC Fact Check, refers to information that is misleading, and may be spread by accident. Say you find a funny news story online and share it with your friends without checking it’s veracity. If the story turns out to be false, whether you know that or not, you have just contributed to the spread of misinformation. There may not be any malicious intent behind sharing the information (after all, you just wanted to give your mates a laugh), but the information is untrue all the same.
Disinformation, on the other hand, is false information that’s circulated to deliberately mislead people. The motivation behind this can range from an April Fools prank, to political disruption, and the consequences of it can vary. According to Wardle, disinformation is “motivated by three distinct factors: to make money; to have political influence, either foreign or domestic; or to cause trouble for the sake of it.”
Malinformation can be even more nefarious, as it usually targets a victim and uses genuine information in order to benefit a particular personal interest and cause harm. This is a whole new level of cyber-bullying that can have far-reaching consequences. An example of this, according to Wardle, is when Russian agents leaked details of the relationship between the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign in order to damage reputations. She argues that this weaponization of context (warping and reframing genuine information) is increasing, and therefore a lot of what we see would fall into this category.
Within these three main categories are seven subcategories, which help to clarify the extremely complex ecosystem of information disorder. These categories were drafted by First Draft in 2017 in order to remove the limits of the over-used term “fake news”.
“Information disorder is complex” writes Wardle. “Some of it could be described as low-level information pollution, but some of it is sophisticated and deeply deceptive.”
“In order to understand, explain and tackle these challenges the language we use matters. Terminology and definitions matter.”
Why is Information Disorder so dangerous?
According to this article by Gillian Tett Financial Times, studies indicate that nobody is safe from the misinformation that circulates online. It turns out that regardless of age, education or political leanings, we’re all susceptible.
Over a period of several months, digital researchers at New York University and Stanford selected five news items that had been published the day before, and asked participants across the US to decide if they were true or not. The research is still underway, but the preliminary results showed that most participants could identify when news was true, but had a lot of difficulty telling when it wasn’t.
The age and education of the participants didn’t seem to be a factor in their success, writes Tett. “More noticeable was a split along ideological lines: conservatives did a better job spotting fake news when it came from liberal news sources and vice versa. But both conservatives and liberals performed badly with partisan fake news that aligned with their own preference”.
These results make sense, as people tend to believe information which confirms their own world view or conforms to their agenda. This confirmation bias can be another reason for sharing stories that may be inaccurate or taken out of context.
Das says that spreading false information can be particularly dangerous when it causes people to change their behaviour. “Misinformation about a medicine, for example, might make people stop taking it when it’s actually quite safe” (It’s at this point that you have my permission start shooting nasty looks at all the anti-vaxers in the room).
Political misinformation (and often disinformation), says Das, is just as problematic. It can cause people to become angry or anxious, change their votes, or start riots.
Now that social media platforms have become as much a part of our every day lives as eating and breathing, it’s easy for rumours, conspiracy theories, manipulated photos and videos to circulate extremely rapidly. The media ecosystem has been polluted, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know what to trust. We as the consumers of that media need to take responsibility for what we see and share online. The first step is to recognise the kind of information we’re looking at for what it is, and not just toss it under the umbrella term of “fake news”.
“Remember,” urges Das, “every time you passively accept information or share a post, image or video before you’ve checked it, you could be adding to information disorder”.
So let’s all be a little more mindful of the content we’re consuming, and take a minute to verify it before we hit that share button and post it all over.
“In the same way that you’re told to wait 20 minutes before you reach for a second helping of food, because you need to wait for your brain to catch up with your stomach,” writes Wardle, “the same is true with information. Maybe you don’t need to wait 20 minutes before clicking the share button, but two minutes is probably sensible.”