The term ‘fake news’ is regularly used to refer to disinformation and misinformation, terms often used interchangeably. However, there is a subtle, but major, difference. 

What is disinformation?

Disinformation is the intentional spreading of false information. It’s been used for decades by governments as a method of warfare, sometimes referred to as propaganda.

Disinformation can be used by con artists to deceive you into giving away money or information. For example, in the Netflix documentary, The Tinder Swindler, we saw how a man was able to defraud dozens of women on the dating app, Tinder, by spreading false information about his identity and wealth. 

What is misinformation?

Misinformation, the unintentional spreading of false information, is often a result of disinformation. Sometimes, the information isn’t false, but it’s taken out of context or is outdated. Social media has helped the spread of misinformation grow at an exponential rate.

A recent example is the negative sentiment towards the use of face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Whilst initially, many health bodies didn’t recommend the use of masks, the guidance changed. Those who continue to deny that mask-wearing offers some protection are sharing out-of-date information. 

How to spot and stop the spread of disinformation?

There are some red flags that can help you identify fake news:

  • It taps into certain biases – either your own implicit biases, societal or algorithmic ones
  • It elicits strong emotions
  • It’s not properly sourced or is out of date

When you find this sort of information consider:

  • The author or organisation who has created the content
  • The date it was published
  • Evidence available from other, reliable, information sources

Spotting fake news becomes easier over time and there are a number of resources available to educate yourself, such as this game, developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge.