Misinformation refers, in the broadest sense, to false information. This term is used in a variety of contexts, sometimes interchangeably with other similar terms, such as disinformation or propaganda, or with buzzwords like fake-news, which can result in confusion about this topic.
In their 2018 book, Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics, Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts provide two useful definitions of misinformation. Their first definition is “publishing wrong information without meaning to be wrong or having a political purpose in communicating false information” (Benkler et. al., 2018, p.24), and the second definition “Communication of false information without intent to deceive, manipulate, or otherwise obtain an outcome”(Benkler et. al., 2018, p.37).
The authors’ second definition of misinformation aligns with a commonplace understanding of the term and highlights a necessary condition – the lack of intent to deceive or manipulate. Their first definition is also important however, as it adds an additional condition – a lack of political purpose. According to Benkler et. al., misinformation can be contrasted withdisinformation, which they define as “Dissemination of explicitly false or misleading information” and “manipulating and misleading people intentionally to achieve political ends”(Benkler et. al., 2018, p.24 & 32). In other words, disinformation both (a) is intentionally misleading and (b) serves a political purpose.
Some quick examples will help to differentiate these terms. If group of conspirators want to convince others that when a vaccination is administered, a microchip will be implanted into the receiver’s skin that will be used to track the recipient. Assuming there is no evidence for such a thing happening, this constitutes disinformation, as it is both intentionally misleading, and serves a political purpose. The political element might not be explicit; however, the conspirators do have a political agenda – to discourage vaccination.
On the other hand, if my friend Mary was to hear about this and warn me not to get vaccinated if I wish not to be tracked by the government, this would constitute misinformation. Mary does not want to deceive or manipulate, believes this information, and is acting in good-faith; however, false information is still being communicated. Misinformation is clearly the more “innocent” of these two terms, however, it can still be damaging without an agent intending it to be. These examples also highlight how something that begins as disinformation can become misinformation when it is shared by others who genuinely believe the truth of what they are sharing.
Although the definitions provided by Benkler and colleagues help to clarify these terms, my understanding diverges from theirs in two key ways. First, they define misinformation as the act of ‘publishing’ or ‘communicating’ false information, rather than the false information itself. That is to say, for Benkler et. al., the action of spreading false information constitutes misinformation. By contrast, when I use the term misinformation (and disinformation), I am referring to the information itself. In other words, when I suggest that something is misinformation, I refer to message that is being conveyed, independent of the epistemic agent. Second, I view the relationship between misinformation and disinformation differently. Rather than understanding misinformation as an effect of disinformation, I interpret misinformation as an umbrella term that captures all forms of false information, and disinformation as a type of misinformation that is deliberately misleading and manipulative.
The rationale for my interpretation is that one could think of many examples of misinformation that have not begun strictly as disinformation; that is, they do not follow causally from deliberately misleading information shared with malicious intent. Rather, some misinformation arises simply due to sharing of false information, with no original ‘deceiver’ as such. For instance, there might be a widespread misunderstanding of a phenomena, developing as a consequence of societal norms, that results in misinformation. For example, the idea that we need meat in our diet for good health can be understood as misinformation that has arisen as a result of norms around the consumption of animals, developed over hundreds of years.
In this example, there is no clear link to a deceiver or group of conspirators who begun circulating this information with a political ‘pro-meat’ agenda. However, this is not to say that there is not related disinformation. Many organizations that are invested in the ongoing exploitation of non-human animals have recognized misinformation in commonplace beliefs and created disinformation and propaganda that plays into them. For example, they have created narratives that promote the widely-held view that we need meat in our diet. So, in this case, misinformation has not come into existence as a result of disinformation, but disinformation has been developed by appropriating existing misinformation. However, disinformation can then go on to take the form of misinformation.
Another relevant term that Benkler, Faris, and Roberts use is ‘disorientation’. They define disorientation as “a condition that some propaganda seeks to induce, in which the target population simply loses the ability to tell truth from falsehood or where to go for help in distinguishing between the two” (Benkler et. al., 2018, p.24). We are overwhelmed with information which allows bad actors seek to strip us of the ability to determine truth from falsity – leading to disorientation.
In their book, The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread (2019), Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall also explore the topic of misinformation. More specifically, the authors focus on the formation of false beliefs, how they spread, and why they persist; paying particular attention to the social aspects of belief formation. O’Connor and Weatherall define false beliefs as “beliefs that are inconsistent with the available evidence” (O’Connor & Weatherall, 2019, p.7).
So, how do false beliefs relate to misinformation? There are two distinct ways, or more specifically, two different viewpoints about the nature of the relationship. First, false beliefs may be formed when an agent, as a ‘receiver’, obtains and integrates misinformation. That is to say, where false and misleading information is spread, it is possible for a receiver to form false beliefs. On the other hand, false beliefs also encourage the spread of misinformation. In other words, if an agent has false beliefs about a given topic, it is possible that they will become a ‘sender’, and communicate this information to other agents, as a result of the social aspects of our belief forming mechanisms.
Therefore, it can be said that there is a deeply entwined relationship between misinformation and false beliefs, feeding off one another. Recall that I referred earlier to misinformation as false and misleading information itself, independent of an epistemic agent. It is now apparent that this is a significant distinction, as it allows us to understand another difference between misinformation and false beliefs; misinformation is not necessarily bound to an agent whereas false beliefs are attached to a specific agent.
As discussed in my previous blog post, there is evidence to suggest that non-human animals deserve greater moral consideration than they are currently accorded. However, our beliefs, as reflected by the normality of consumption of non-human animals, have not been adequately adjusted to reflect this evidence. Therefore, this epistemic shortcoming can be seen as a form of false belief. In my next post, I’ll consider misinformation in the context of non-human animals, to show a variety of ways that these false beliefs are propagated.
*This blog post has been adapted from my Masters of Research thesis, ‘How Misinformation Reinforces the Status of Animals as Food’ (2021). Thank you to my supervisors Jane Johnson and Mark Alfano.
Benkler, Y., Faris, R., & Roberts, H. (2018). Network Propaganda. Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
O’Connor, C., & Weatherall, J. O. (2019). The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread. London, UK: Yale University Press.