Misinformation and Disinformation 

By Christina Georgacopoulos and Grayce Mores | July 2020

Fake news, made-up stories and just pure fiction masquerading as news has a long history in American politics. During periods of conflict, fake news has ebbed and flowed often aimed at influencing opinion and voting behavior. Social media, digital technology, resurgent populist movements and severe polarization in our politics have energized a new wave of fake news designed to confuse, frighten or shape certain behavior in American elections and in our society more generally.

A political cartoon depicting a farmer looking at his cattle, which are actually men dressed up as cattle. The "cattle" are saying things such as, "moo" and "lock her up" and "benghazi" The cartoon is making a joke of how Russian trolls disguise themselves to infilrate American social media to mimic political conversation and amplify certain subjects that reflect poorly on then-candidate Hillary Clinton

Image source: claytoonz.com

Seven Signs of Misinformation and Disinformation

The term fake news is routinely used incorrectly to describe news reporting that someone disagrees with. But there are important distinctions to be made about the various types of disinformation, the agents and motives behind disinformation campaigns, and the formats in which disinformation appears. Misinformation is false information that is disseminated by someone who believes it to be true. Disinformation is the intentional dissemination of false information. And mal-information is information based in reality, but is used to inflict harm on a person or organization. The following are seven common forms of mis- and disinformation. 

Satire or parody is considered a form of art and is protected by the First Amendment. Satire or parody has no intention to cause harm, but may be written for profit and has the potential to fool readers with invented facts and humor.

Example: The Onion

The misleading use of information to frame an issue or individual occurs when cropping photos, or selectively including quotes or statistics. “Native” or paid advertising can qualify as misleading content when it is insufficiently identified as sponsored content.

Imposter content uses made-up identities to create rumors or false reports. This includes using the bylines of real journalists on fake news articles, or the deliberate use of an organization's logos, videos or images to make fake news reports appear credible.

Fabricated content is entirely false content designed to deceive. This can include completely fabricated news websites, as well as doctored photos, videos and statistics. 

Example: The Comet Pizza story alleging sex trafficking, phishing campaigns

False connection occurs when headlines, visuals, or captions don't support the content of the news report. The most common form of false connection are clickbait articles.

False context occurs when content is shared with false contextual information or is re-circulated out of its original content. 

Example: early reporting on the Covington (Kentucky) Catholic High School incident

Manipulated content is genuine information or imagery that is manipulated to deceive

Example: Nancy Pelosi's "drunk" video 

The masterminds who produce disinformation are often different from the agents who disseminate it. Once a message is distributed, it can be reproduced, repurposed, and redistributed by many different actors with different motivations.

The different forms of propaganda illustrate the different motives of disinformation agents: 

  • Agents who create white propaganda do not disguise their identities. State sponsored information campaigns, such as in North Korea, are considered white propaganda. 
  • Agents who create grey propaganda do not reveal their identities. This includes anonymous internet trolls and other anonymous online personas. 
  • Agents who create black propaganda give the impression that the propaganda messages they create were made by those they appear to discredit. Black propagandists often weave fact and fiction together in a way that make their messages appear credible and legitimate.

Judge An Argument For Yourself

Fake news stories manipulate the presentation of facts in order to elicit emotional reactions or cause readers to rely on faulty, biased thought processes. Individual media users are the first line of defense against fake news. The ability to recognize the logical structure of an argument can help media users judge the credibility and truth of news stories.

  • Fallacies are common errors in reasoning that undermine the logic of an argument, and are often deployed by persuasive orators to mislead or distract audiences. Fallacies can be entirely illegitimate arguments, or just irrelevant points. Weak arguments that rely on logical fallacies usually have no evidence to support their claims.

Slippery slope or casual chain fallacies are arguments that assert a conclusion based on faulty casual evidence. Slippery slope arguments conclude that if “A” happens, then eventually, through incremental steps, “B” and “C” will happen, too. So, if we don’t want “C” to occur, we must prevent “A” from occurring. These fallacies usually suggest unlikely or ludicrous outcomes without much evidence.

Hasty generalizations are conclusions based on insufficient or biased evidence. People who make hasty generalizations rush to conclusions before all the relevant facts are in. Fair and reasonable judgments of a situation must utilize all relevant facts.

Circular arguments simply restate the argument in question rather than providing evidence to support its validity.

Ad hominem attacks are levied against the character of a person making an argument rather than on the facts presented. Ad hominem attacks focus on personality and other elements than affect popularity or favorability.

Appeals to ignorance equate lack of contrary evidence with proof of existence. Appeals to ignorance do not assert proof of anything or any claim to knowledge except that we have not found certain answers to certain questions.

Bandwagon appeals present “what most people think” as a strategy to persuade others to think or do the same. Bandwagon appeals presume something is true or right because other people agree with it. These appeals play on the human desire of group acceptance.

A red herring argument distracts audiences from relevant facts by avoiding opposing arguments altogether. People use red herrings to divert attention and discussion away from relevant facts when they can’t refute an argument.

Tu quoque or appeals to hypocrisy disregard an argument by pointing out hypocrisy in an opponent. Tu quoque arguments deflect criticism and blame away from oneself by accusing an opponent of the same thing.

Straw man arguments oversimplify an opponent's argument or perspective in order to attack it more easily. People who use straw man arguments usually attribute the worst possible motive to an opponent’s argument. The phrase “straw man” illustrates how an opponent attacks a “hollow” version of a person's real beliefs, which are almost always more complex than given credit for.

Appeals to authority cite irrelevant or false authorities on a subject to mislead audiences. Misuse of authority can include citing an expert on a subject that is not within their expertise, or assuming the accuracy and credibility of a person based on the assertion they are experts on a subject.

Appeals to pity are fallacies of relevance. Similar to ad hominem fallacies, appeals to pity are emotionally manipulative and evoke emotional responses from audiences that are irrelevant to the argument in question. Truth and falsity deal with what is, and what is not regardless of emotional feelings. To be fair, emotional response can provide insight into people’s values and belief systems.

Equivocation refers to the deliberate misuse or a word, phrase, or sentence to confuse or mislead audiences. Equivocation fallacies usually occur when euphemisms and other replacement words are used to frame situations in a more favorable light.

Moral equivalence fallacies unfairly compare minor misdeeds with major atrocities, suggesting that both are equally immoral.

False dichotomy or either/or fallacies oversimplify an argument by reducing it to only two possible conclusions or choices. Either/or arguments ignore a range of other possibilities and are a manipulative tool designed to polarize audiences, or strong-arm the public into accepting controversial propositions.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc is similar to conflating correlation with causation. Post hoc ergo propter hoc conclusions assume that if one event chronologically follows from another, then the first event must have caused the second. “If A came before B, then A must have caused B.”

The fallacy of sunk costs is the belief that a person should continue with a task because they have already invested time and effort. These arguments do not consider the future costs incurred by continuing the action in question. “Sunk costs” is an economic term for expenses that can no longer be recovered. Sometimes people become too emotionally invested in a project to abandon their efforts despite evidence it would be a fruitless endeavor. 

Genetic fallacies are conclusions based on the argument that the origins of a person or idea determine its character, nature, or worth. 

When “begging the question,” an argument’s premises assume the truth of the conclusion. Begging the question requires that the desired conclusion is true, which is also referred to as arguing in a circle. 

Source: Purdue Writing Lab

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