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Understanding Misinformation vs Disinformation


The battle to protect information integrity and expose fake news has added two new important words to everyone’s lexicon: “Misinformation” and “Disinformation.” You have likely heard these terms many times, and while they sound similar, they have a subtle, yet essential difference. With information authenticity more uncertain than ever, it is crucial that we understand the proper definitions of misinformation and disinformation, how they are different, and ultimately, how to measure authenticity.

Similar, Yes. But Not the Same.

Both disinformation and misinformation contribute to fake news, resulting in significant risks to brands and their audiences. And though they both can cause serious damage to brands and trust, it is important to understand the difference between the two. The major difference between misinformation and disinformation comes from their intent. Understanding the intent is essential for brands when navigating online narratives and deciding if, how, and when to respond.

Disinformation Definition

Disinformation: (noun) False information deliberately and often covertly spread in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.

The deliberate intent to spread false information is particularly dangerous because it can significantly discredit or disarm entities like businesses and state agencies, or corrupt the beliefs and ideas of an audience

Creators and knowing spreaders of disinformation operate as bad faith actors and cannot be swayed by facts. Disinformation intelligence is one of the few tools that comprehensively allow brands to understand if a narrative or actor is employing disinformation and how/if they should respond.

Misinformation Definition

Misinformation: (noun) Incorrect or misleading information inadvertently sent in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.

In contrast to disinformation, the sender of misinformation may not know that the information is inaccurate. Creators and spreaders of misinformation think that they are communicating legitimate information and generally have good faith intentions. 

Despite misinformation not being spread with a nefarious intent, it can still do just as much damage to narratives and brands as disinformation, if left to spiral out of control. Social intelligence tools give brands the power to identify misinformation, often before it hits the mainstream, and allows them to create a strategic response. 

Every brand runs the risk of being a victim of a one-off false tweet making it into the mainstream or, on the more extreme end of the scale, a highly organized disinformation campaign targeted against a specific brand. It is crucial that brands be aware and prepared to proactively and reactively deal with misinformation and disinformation incidents.

Examples of Disinformation

Fake Colin Kaepernick Nike Coupon

One of the most well-known examples of disinformation, surrounds Nike’s controversial choice to feature NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in a fall 2018 ad campaign. The ad sparked a strong and immediate response from supporters and detractors on social media, as the NFL quarterback had become a figure of controversy by repeatedly kneeling during the performance of the national anthem before games as a way to raise awareness about police brutality, social injustice and systemic racism.

While this PR issue ensued, ideologically driven trolls developed a targeted disinformation campaign and unleashed a hoax against Nike on the web forums 4chan and 8chan. Users posted fake coupons offering 75% off for the company’s products for “people of color.”

In this case hoaxers built a campaign on a perceived Achilles heel: a pre-existing public relations scandal. What makes it disinformation is the coupon, which was generated by the hoaxers — not Nike — and deliberately sent across social media platforms. The combined effect of both initiatives juxtaposes race, the brand name, and controversy, as a means to intentionally undermine the brand.