Misunderstanding Misinformation

Article by Claire Wardle: “In the fall of 2017, Collins Dictionary named fake news word of the year. It was hard to argue with the decision. Journalists were using the phrase to raise awareness of false and misleading information online. Academics had started publishing copiously on the subject and even named conferences after it. And of course, US president Donald Trump regularly used the epithet from the podium to discredit nearly anything he disliked.

By spring of that year, I had already become exasperated by how this term was being used to attack the news media. Worse, it had never captured the problem: most content wasn’t actually fake, but genuine content used out of context—and only rarely did it look like news. I made a rallying cry to stop using fake news and instead use misinformationdisinformation, and malinformation under the umbrella term information disorder. These terms, especially the first two, have caught on, but they represent an overly simple, tidy framework I no longer find useful.

Both disinformation and misinformation describe false or misleading claims, but disinformation is distributed with the intent to cause harm, whereas misinformation is the mistaken sharing of the same content. Analyses of both generally focus on whether a post is accurate and whether it is intended to mislead. The result? We researchers become so obsessed with labeling the dots that we can’t see the larger pattern they show.

By focusing narrowly on problematic content, researchers are failing to understand the increasingly sizable number of people who create and share this content, and also overlooking the larger context of what information people actually need. Academics are not going to effectively strengthen the information ecosystem until we shift our perspective from classifying every post to understanding the social contexts of this information, how it fits into narratives and identities, and its short-term impacts and long-term harms…(More)”.