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:
- Moving true, private information into the public domain
- 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.
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:
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.
Editing the graph to use a single scale for all countries, as seen below, clearly shows how much more the United States spends.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.