The Harmful Elements of Information Disorder

Article 15 min
Disinformation, misinformation and malinformation are the three main components of information disorder. There are similarities and differences between each.

What is information disorder?

The umbrella term "information disorder" refers to all harmful information that disrupts the information environment. It's the data that pollutes the IE and causes users to have to slow down and sort through everything. Information disorder makes it difficult for public affairs professionals to connect with their relevant actors to achieve information advantage. It gets in the way of their narratives.

Disinformation, misinformation and malinformation are the categories of harmful information that make up information disorder. These categories have similarities and differences. What all three have in common is that they cause harm.

Ben Nimmo, a former nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, coined the term "4D approach" to describe using these techniques together to advance an agenda of information disorder. The four D's consist of:

  • Dismiss - undermining the critics of a position instead of the points they may be making
  • Distort - twisting facts or contexts or creating false facts to support a given narrative
  • Distract - turning attention away from one side's actions and highlighting often unrelated actions of an opponent
  • Dismay - causing fear or anger to obscure logical reasoning with an emotional response

What is disinformation and misinformation?

Disinformation and misinformation are types of false information.

  • Disinformation is known to be false by the communicator at the time it is shared.
  • Misinformation is false information thought to be true by the communicator when it is shared.

They cause harm in the information environment by spreading information that just isn't true. It is hard for people to make appropriate decisions and actions when they believe false information. It may make it easier to remember that:

Disinformation is deliberate.

Misinformation is a mistake.

What is malinformation?

Malinformation is factual information used in a way to do harm or manipulate. There are two broad types of malinformation:

  1. Moving true, private information into the public domain
  2. Presenting true information without context or in the wrong context

Releasing classified materials and doxing are examples of making true, private information public.

Presenting factual information without context or with false context can be more subtle. An example may be presenting the fact that shark attacks increase at the same time that human ice cream consumption increases. Leaving out the context that warm summer months are responsible for both increased ice cream consumption and the rise in people being in the ocean may lead people to believe the false connection that eating ice cream makes humans tastier to sharks.

What does information disorder look like?

In reality, disinformation, misinformation and malinformation can look like almost anything if the information meets the above-mentioned definitions. There can also be some harmful information that crosses over within the categories. But, there are some common forms that information disorder may take. Here are ten common forms of potentially harmful information:

Tongue-in-cheek content presented as earnest
 

Individuals who may not grasp the intended humor can easily misunderstand satire or parody. People fooled into believing satire or parody is true can spread it as misinformation.

The article below from Duffel Blog is an example of satire that may be mistaken as real and shared as such by some individuals. As reported by Military.com, a U.S. congressman seemingly referenced this particular Duffle Blog article as factual during a congressional hearing.

Screenshot of a Duffel Blog article's headline, photo and initial excerpt that is meant to be satirical, but may be repeated by fooled users as real. Source: Southern Poverty Law Center classifies VFW and American Legion as hate groups. Duffel Blog. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
A screenshot of an article showing a photo of a man wearing a VFW hat, standing with his arms crossed. The headline reads, "Southern Poverty Law Center classifies VFW and American Legion as hate groups," and the sub headline reads, "According to the SPLC, members of the Legion and VFW are well-known for inciting extreme hatred." There is an excerpt from the article's text that reads, "MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Southern Poverty Law Center has announced it would include prominent American veterans' organizations American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars in its listing of hate groups, sources confirmed today.
In a written statement signed by SPLC President J. Richard Cohen, the organization said both the VFW and Legion were included since many of their members sympathize with radical, extreme-right-wing ideals such as freedom, safety, and family values."
Screenshot of a Duffel Blog article's headline, photo and initial excerpt that is meant to be satirical, but may be repeated by fooled users as real. Source: Southern Poverty Law Center classifies VFW and American Legion as hate groups. Duffel Blog.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION Team
VIRIN: 230901-D-ZW071-1003

Headlines, visuals or captions that don't support the content
 

You have probably heard this called "clickbait." Clickbait is a form of disinformation or malinformation, depending on its truthfulness. The teaser presents a reader with a catchy headline and maybe an image. This entices the user to click the link to read the article, only to find that the piece falls short of the desired expectations or only briefly touches on the promoted topic, if at all. False connections are intentionally deceiving and cause mistrust in the information environment.
Here are some examples of false connections:

These imagined article teasers are examples of how false connections might look. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
Two teaser links for articles on an internet page that contain images and headlines. One shows an image of  several runners' legs as they race on a city street with a headline that reads, "70 Year Old Runner Shatters Marathon World Record." The other shows an image of a plate of eggs, bacon and pancakes with a headline that reads, " Nutritionist Reveals Secret to Losing Weight and Staying Healthy."
These imagined article teasers are examples of how false connections might look.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION Team
VIRIN: 230901-D-ZW071-1004

False connections are created in the above examples when a person clicks the links to read the articles. The marathon article is about a broken record for runners in the category of women over 70, not the overall record, and it was beaten by one minute. The article regarding the nutritionist reveals the secret to losing weight and staying healthy is simply consuming fewer calories than used daily and eating a balanced diet. The teasers implied more than the articles delivered.

Deceptive use of information to frame an issue or individual
 

Content can mislead users in a variety of ways. It can be done through the use of incomplete statistics, leaving out context or only reporting part of what is true. Misleading content is subtle and usually malinformation or misinformation.

The example of malinformation below is a graphic that is visually misleading because of its unorthodox use of two different Y axes. The right axis depicts data points for the U.S., while the left axis shows the expenditures of the remaining countries. The dollar amounts displayed are accurate, but using two different scales makes it appear that China spends more on the military than the United States, which is not valid.

Screenshot of a graph showing the military expenditures of the top six countries by dollar amount. The use of a separate Y axis for just the U.S. makes it incorrectly appear as though China's 2021 expenditures of $270 billion is more than the U.S.'s 2021 expenditures of $768 billion. Source: Exaggerating China’s military spending, St. Louis Fed breaks all statistical rules with misleading graph. Monthly Review Online. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
A line graph showing the military expenditures of the top six countries. The U.S. expenditures are represented using a scale on the right side that ranges from $400 billion to $1 trillion, while the remaining countries' expenditures are represented using a scale on the left side that ranges from $0 to 300 billion. The lines all intersect at various points.
Screenshot of a graph showing the military expenditures of the top six countries by dollar amount. The use of a separate Y axis for just the U.S. makes it incorrectly appear as though China's 2021 expenditures of $270 billion is more than the U.S.'s 2021 expenditures of $768 billion. Source: Exaggerating China’s military spending, St. Louis Fed breaks all statistical rules with misleading graph. Monthly Review Online.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION Team
VIRIN: 230901-D-ZW071-1005

Editing the graph to use a single scale for all countries, as seen below, clearly shows how much more the United States spends.

Screenshot of the same graph if it were edited to use a single Y axis and scale. Source: Exaggerating China’s military spending, St. Louis Fed breaks all statistical rules with misleading graph. Monthly Review Online. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
A line graph showing the military expenditures of the top six countries using a single scale that ranges from $0 to $1 trillion. The line representing the U.S. expenditures is far above the remaining lines and never intersects with any of them.
Screenshot of the same graph if it were edited to use a single Y axis and scale. Source: Exaggerating China’s military spending, St. Louis Fed breaks all statistical rules with misleading graph. Monthly Review Online.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION Team
VIRIN: 230901-D-ZW071-1012

Genuine content shared with false contextual information
 

False context is using genuine information or photos within the framework of an unrelated message.

The below post on X (formally known as Twitter) purports that the ambient heat in Puerto Rico is responsible for melting traffic lights, but the photograph that X used is from a completely different time and place.

Screenshot of a June 2023 social media post regarding the extreme heat in Puerto Rico. An actual non-doctored photo was used, but the photo really depicts a traffic light that was damaged by the flames of a scooter fire in Italy in July of 2022. Source: Miscaptioned Image Claims To Show Melted Traffic Light in Locations Around World. Snopes. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
A social media post showing a photograph of a melted traffic light and text that reads, "Record high temperatures have led to the temporary post-María plastic traffic lights "melting" in Cataño Puerto Rico."
Screenshot of a June 2023 social media post regarding the extreme heat in Puerto Rico. An actual non-doctored photo was used, but the photo really depicts a traffic light that was damaged by the flames of a scooter fire in Italy in July of 2022. Source: Miscaptioned Image Claims To Show Melted Traffic Light in Locations Around World. Snopes.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION Team
VIRIN: 230901-D-ZW071-1008

Impersonation of genuine sources
 

People generally consider the source when determining the truthfulness of the content they consume. Unfortunately, falsely posing as a reputable source is a common disinformation tactic.

The URL "http://abcnews.com.co" was once used to impersonate the ABC News website. It copied the look of the actual ABC News website and spread countless disinformation stories before being shut down. The below example is a piece of online disinformation distributed in 2017, designed to mimic the look of genuine BBC news.

This false information about a UK election was designed to look like official BBC reporting in order to add credibility to the deception. Source: Understanding information disorder, First Draft. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
A screenshot of a report with a false BBC Breaking News heading. The headline reads, "General Election to be held over 2 days." The text reads, "Due to an unprecedented increase in the number of registered voters, the general election will now be held over two days instead of one, to ease congestion and overcrowding in polling stations. The voting is to be split in the following way:- Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green party supporters should vote on Thursday June 8th as usual. Conservative and UKIP supporters should now vote on Friday June 9th instead. Please be aware that if you vote for the wrong party on the wrong day your vote will not count!"
This false information about a UK election was designed to look like official BBC reporting in order to add credibility to the deception. Source: Understanding information disorder, First Draft.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION Team
VIRIN: 230901-D-ZW071-1007

Genuine information or imagery manipulated to deceive
 

Intentionally manipulating content for the purpose of deception is a form of disinformation usually done to images or videos. The visuals are physically altered in some manner in order to support a broader false narrative. Examples of physical alteration include adding or removing things from a photograph or video or changing the speed of a video.

Below is an example of a manipulated photograph used repeatedly to create false narratives on social media and the internet.

This doctored photo of a shark swimming in a flooded roadway has been used numerous times on the internet to create misinformation. The shark's image was taken from a 2005 photo of the shark trailing a kayaker in the ocean and pasted into the photo of the flooded road. Source: Does This Picture Show a Shark Swimming Down a Highway After a Hurricane? Snopes. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
Screen shot of a doctored photo from the internet of a shark swimming in a flooded roadway appearing to be taken from inside a car. The accompanying text reads, "Why You Shouldn't Swim After a Hurricane. This picture was taken in Puerto Rico shortly after Hurricane Irene ravaged the island. Yes, that's a shark swimming down the street next to a car, and this is exactly why authorities in NYC are warning people not to go swimming in flood waters after a hurricane. Sharks go where fish go, and fish go where water goes, and if that water (and those subsequent fish) happen to be right outside your front door, then guess where that freakin' shark's going to be?!"
This doctored photo of a shark swimming in a flooded roadway has been used numerous times on the internet to create misinformation. The shark's image was taken from a 2005 photo of the shark trailing a kayaker in the ocean and pasted into the photo of the flooded road. Source: Does This Picture Show a Shark Swimming Down a Highway After a Hurricane? Snopes.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION Team
VIRIN: 230901-D-ZW071-1009

Using content to manage attitudes, values and knowledge
 

Propaganda often has a negative connotation, but propaganda may not always be harmful or untrue. Propaganda is information disseminated to promote a particular cause or point of view to encourage a certain attitude, response or action.

People have utilized propaganda to advocate positive actions such as rationing and enlisting in the military during the world wars and, in more recent times, to encourage greater seatbelt usage and reduce smoking.

But propaganda is often used by our adversaries to promote negative attitudes against us or initiatives against our interests. Propaganda can, and often does, include disinformation or malinformation.

Here is an example of an anti-American Soviet propaganda poster from the Cold War that contains disinformation.

This Soviet-era Russian anti-American poster is an example of propaganda. The text in the top-left corner translates as, "About 20 million Americans do not have the means to buy more than one liter of milk per month and consume more than 6 kilograms of meat per year." The bottom text translates as, "THEY ONLY HAVE ABUNDANCE FOR THE RICH. AND WE STRIVE FOR ABUNDANCE FOR EVERYONE." Source: 15 Soviet anti-American posters from the Cold War. Russia Beyond. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
A poster with Russian text that depicts an illustration of a woman counting change in her hand as a small girl peers over a counter. The counter contains bottles and cartons of milk. A large man wearing a suit and top hat and smoking a cigar looks on from the background.
This Soviet-era Russian anti-American poster is an example of propaganda. The text in the top-left corner translates as, "About 20 million Americans do not have the means to buy more than one liter of milk per month and consume more than 6 kilograms of meat per year." The bottom text translates as, "THEY ONLY HAVE ABUNDANCE FOR THE RICH. AND WE STRIVE FOR ABUNDANCE FOR EVERYONE." Source: 15 Soviet anti-American posters from the Cold War. Russia Beyond.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION Team
VIRIN: 230901-D-ZW071-1013

Advertising or public relations disguised as editorial content
 

People sometimes refer to it as advertorials, native advertising or sponsored content. Like any other advertisement, it is content that is shown to users because someone paid for it to appear. However, when an advertisement mimics a news article, readers may mistakenly assume that the content is factual and unbiased.

Sponsored content can contain disinformation, and its overall presence muddies the lines between news and advertising, which adds to information disorder.

Below is an example of a Walmart ad on the New York Times website designed to look like a news article. The piece contains a "Paid Post" label, and if a user hovers over that label or taps it on a mobile device, a small pop-out window appears with the following disclaimer:

"This content was paid for by Walmart and created in collaboration with T Brand, the content studio of New York Times Advertising. The news and editorial staff of The New York Times had no role in this post’s creation."

Users can easily miss that label and the hidden disclaimer.

This paid Walmart advertisement on the New York Times website is designed to look like a news article on the site. Source: Debt-Free College Is Closer Than You Think (advertisement). The New York Times. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
Screenshot of  a paid Walmart ad that has the appearance of a news article. There is a small "Paid Post" label under the New York Times banner at the top-center of the page. The mouse pointer was placed over that label in order to reveal a small pop-out window containing the paid post disclaimer. The ad/article contains two photographs of Walmart employees wearing name tags. The headline reads, "Debt-Free College Is Closer Than You Think," and the sub headline reads, "How Walmart’s Live Better U is revolutionizing education." A portion of the ad/article body test is shown; it reads, "Janine Johnson is on a mission to inspire, starting with her 5-year-old son. “He wants to be an astronaut, and I want to show him you can do whatever you set your mind on, as long as you have enough determination and..."
This paid Walmart advertisement on the New York Times website is designed to look like a news article on the site. Source: Debt-Free College Is Closer Than You Think (advertisement). The New York Times.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION Team
VIRIN: 230901-D-ZW071-1014

When established news organizations make mistakes while reporting
 

Errors are a form of misinformation. They are entirely unintentional but cause harm and confusion in the information environment. Reputable news sources typically correct errors they make, but often, the damage is already evident. There is usually a delay from the initial reporting until the retraction occurs. The error has time to spread, and only some people who received the incorrect information will receive the correction.

One of the most famous examples of a news error is the 1948 Chicago Daily Tribune "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN" headline.

This is one of several famous photos of newly reelected President Harry S. Truman holding a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune mistakenly reporting his election defeat. Source: Stop the Presses! Library of Congress. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
Photograph of President Harry S. Truman holding up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune with a front-page headline that reads, "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN."
This is one of several famous photos of newly reelected President Harry S. Truman holding a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune mistakenly reporting his election defeat. Source: Stop the Presses! Library of Congress.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION Team
VIRIN: 230901-D-ZW071-1015

New content that is 100% false and made to deceive and do harm
 

Fabricated content is the most severe form of disinformation. It is completely false and invented from nothing, but designed to appear realistic with the primary intent to make people believe it.

Since it is wholly invented, fabricated content can look like anything, making it difficult to spot. It is no different than a writer creating a new movie script or a novel; the limit is only the creator's imagination. But unlike movies and books, disinformation is designed to trick the audience, not entertain. Fabricated content may include anything or any combination of things: videos, photographs, graphics, articles, news reports, social media posts, blogs, speeches, etc. The list is endless.

The screenshots below are of an illegitimate but verified YouTube channel created in 2017 and shared content until 2022. Thanks to the coordinated efforts of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs and Bureau of Global Public Affairs, and Mission New Zealand, they shut it down for spreading disinformation about U.S. troops in 2022.

The channel, looking legitimate on the surface, had 152,000 subscribers. It came to the attention of Mission New Zealand after the media inquired about the truthfulness of a video titled "U.S. sending 3,000 troops to help Tonga Damage after Volcanic Eruption." After watching the video, browsing the channel and conducting online research, Public Affairs Section New Zealand alerted the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Public Diplomacy to coordinate an interagency action that resulted in the channel's removal from YouTube.

This illegitimate YouTube channel appeared to be genuine and spread fabricated content for several years before it was shut down. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
Screenshot of a YouTube channel titled "US Military Today" with a subheading that reads, " Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine." The channel contains several uploaded videos and shorts.
This illegitimate YouTube channel appeared to be genuine and spread fabricated content for several years before it was shut down.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION Team
VIRIN: 230901-D-ZW071-1010

This video proved to contain fabricated content which led to further investigations and ultimately the entire YouTube channel's removal. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
Screenshot of a paused 8-minute video displaying "Breaking News" and showing military personnel disembarking a Boeing 777-200ER aircraft. The video shows to have been uploaded by the US Military Today channel on January 18, 2022. The title of the video, the text on the video and the video's closed captioning all read, "US sending 3,000 troops to help Tonga Damage After Volcanic Eruption."
This video proved to contain fabricated content which led to further investigations and ultimately the entire YouTube channel's removal.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION Team
VIRIN: 230901-D-ZW071-1011

With the increased use of artificial intelligence, fabricated content, like deep fakes, is easier to produce and more believable. Deep fakes are usually videos that utilize AI to make the person in the video look and sound like a different person. This technology makes it so it can appear that anyone has said anything.

Deep fakes aren't just videos. AI can create sound recordings and plausible images from scratch, too. Deep fakes could be better, but they can be very believable. It stands to reason that as this technology gets better, the problem with fabricated content will get worse.

So, what is fake news?

DINFOS echoes the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's recommendation to avoid using the term entirely in discussions of information disorder.

This is because ‘news’ means verifiable information in the public interest, and information that does not meet these standards does not deserve the label ‘news’. In this sense, then, ‘fake news’ is an oxymoron that lends itself to undermining the credibility of information that meets the threshold of verifiability and public interest – i.e., real news.

References

Allen, Erin. (2012, November 6). Stop the Presses! Library of Congress.

Beynon, Steve. (2021, March 24). GOP Lawmaker Cites Military Satire Site 'Duffel Blog' at Extremism Hearing. Military.com.

LaMagdeleine, Izz Scott. (2023, July 24). Miscaptioned Image Claims To Show Melted Traffic Light in Locations Around World. Snopes.

Mikkelson, David. (2011, August 28). Does This Picture Show a Shark Swimming Down a Highway After a Hurricane? Snopes.

Norton, Ben. (2023, January 25). Exaggerating China’s military spending, St. Louis Fed breaks all statistical rules with misleading graph. Monthly Review Online.

Scuttlebutt, Dick. (2017, September 6). Southern Poverty Law Center classifies VFW and American Legion as hate groups. Duffel Blog.

Wardle, Claire. (2020, September 22). Understanding information disorder. First Draft.

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