Problematic information comes in various forms, each uniquely irksome. Yet people are quick to blast all inaccuracies as “fake news,” reinforcing the sense that facts are a thing of the past.
That’s dangerous and it needn’t be the case, according to the Lexicon of Lies, a recent report from the New York-based Data and Society research institute. “The words we choose to describe media manipulation can lead to assumptions about how information spreads, who spreads it, and who receives it,” writes Caroline Jack, a media historian and postdoctoral fellow at Data and Society. On a cultural level, “these assumptions can shape what kinds of interventions or solutions seem desirable, appropriate, or even possible,” she writes.
Properly labeling inaccurate information arms you with the power to read and judge independently, rather than getting tossed about with every news cycle. Learn to discern with Jack’s lexicon.
Problematic information falls into two general categories, misinformation and disinformation. Intent is the difference. When it’s spread unintentionally, it’s misinformation. When it’s deliberately misleading, it’s disinformation.
- Misinformation: For example, after the May 22 bombing attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, the Daily Express tweeted that a gunman was outside a local hospital. That turned out to be inaccurate, the tweet was deleted, and the paper updated its report.
- Disinformation: In September 2014, false reports of a toxic explosion at Columbian Chemicals in Louisiana spread like wildfire over the internet. There was no accident, but the fake news wasn’t accidental. Rather, reporters discovered, a Russian organization called the Internet Research Agency had orchestrated a “highly coordinated disinformation campaign.”
Treating these equally leads to less transparency. Misinformation happens because honest mistakes are inevitable. Culturally, we need to be able to admit errors to manage their consequences. If you label every inaccuracy as disinformation (or “fake news”), it breeds defensiveness and generalized suspicion.
At any rate, a good antidote to both misinformation and disinformation is to be circumspect about sharing stories on social media—especially the ones that seem too good not to share—until you’ve found confirmation in multiple other sources.
Finally there’s misdirection, or flooding the digital airwaves with material that isn’t false but is an attempt to distract or change the subject. Some media scholars call this by the Chinese term xuanchuan, Jack writes, since it’s a tactic perfected by Chinese troll armies. So if an unexpected story suddenly seems to be trending on your social media for no reason, ask yourself, what else might be going on that it’s trying to divert attention from?
While “publicity” isn’t a pejorative—we understand, after all, that marketing happens—English-speakers resent the term “propaganda.” Yet as Jack points out, both are “persuasive information campaigns [that] present a mixture of facts and interpretations…This blending of facts and interpretations can make the ‘accuracy’ of such campaigns difficult to assess.”
Again, intent is an important distinction. Do you understand to what end you’re being manipulated? Do you know whether it matters? Both publicity and propaganda are intentional, of course, but it helps to have perspective on whether you’re being peddled a bar of soap or pushed around for your vote.
Propaganda doesn’t just come in the form of bombastic posters any more. It can be much more subtle. Jack identifies three basic types of hype:
- White propaganda: Uses accurate but selectively presented information from accurately identified sources to create a believable but incomplete account of an issue.
- Black propaganda: Uses inaccurate or deceptive information and misrepresents or obscures sources.
- Gray propaganda: A blend of black and white propaganda, mixing verifiable and unverifiable sources, as well as accurate information with falsehoods. The mix makes it difficult to discern what’s true.
Keeping these shades in mind will help you think about where to concentrate your skepticism when confronted with a piece of propaganda. How does the propaganda work: Is its creator trying to influence you with outright falsehoods or with subtle twists of interpretation? Does it cite credible sources, suspect sources, or no sources at all? Does it clearly misuse statistics, or use them correctly but perhaps disingenuously?
Jack explains that gaslighting (which comes from the name of a 1938 play) was once used in psychology to describe “situations in which a person orchestrates deceptions and inaccurately narrates events to the extent that their victim stops trusting their own judgments and perceptions.”
Today, in a political context, it means undermining or derailing debate and fostering feelings of doubt or uncertainty. “Journalists and commentators have adopted it to describe the Trump administration’s use of misdirection, denial, and demonstrably false public statements,” writes Jack.
The best defense is not to swallow unproven claims even if you admire the person or institution who made them: Always ask to see the evidence.
To add to all the confusion, comedy, parody, and satire don’t even pretend to tell the truth, but aim for a sort of veracity using skewed and exaggerated information. Because they’re funny, they’re memorable, and because they’re memorable, their distortions can stick very effectively. Moreover, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between truth and jest, and as Jack writes, people who say objectionable things “can always claim their actions were ‘satire’ in the face of blowback or criticism.”
Beware of hoaxes, too, such as April Fool’s jokes. The spoofs are essentially harmless, like announcing plans to open a data center on Mars called Ziggy Stardust. But in a world that increasingly resembles science-fiction stories of the past, they can be disconcertingly believable. Sometimes hoaxes get taken seriously and are spread as true—and that’s a type of misinformation.
Your job in the face of any type of information is to step back, not automatically take things at face value, and avoid adding to all the confusion. Learn to take a joke, see through truly malicious hoaxes, and verify the context of content before you share.