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Misinformation vs Disinformation: What’s the difference?

Mar 7, 2019


The battle to protect information integrity and expose fake news has added a few words to everyone’s lexicon. Here are two we know you have heard many times. While they sound similar, they have a subtle yet essential difference.

Similar, Yes. But Not the Same.

Both disinformation and misinformation contribute to fake news, and both pose a risk to brands and their audiences. However, the major difference between the two lies in intent.

Disinformation carries with it the deliberate intent to spread information known to be incorrect — usually in an effort to discredit a brand, a state agency, or a belief. In contrast, the sender of misinformation may not know the information is inaccurate. 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.

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

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

Example of Disinformation

One of the most recent 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 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.

Example of Misinformation

Pop-rocks fell victim to an episode of misinformation when a rumor was spread saying the combination of the popular 1970’s candy with soda would cause a stomach to explode. Urban legend, a common form of misinformation, even claimed Life Cereal commercial character “Mikey” was killed by the combination. A full 30 years before the advent of the internet and social media, this commercial myth created a significant problem for manufacturer, General Mills, who was forced to send letters to school principals and buy ads in major publications to dispel the story. The Food and Drug Administration even had a hotline devoted to the issue as late as 1979. Consider the aggregated cost of the measures taken to correct the misinformation.

It’s important for companies to understand the difference and the risk that both misinformation and disinformation could pose to their narratives, and ultimately how to take action against disinformation to protect their brand.

The Problem for Brands

Disinformation and misinformation have a way of becoming sticky because they tap into emotions, drive outrage, and often become popular consensus among the general public. And once things become familiar to a group of people, it becomes their narrative. The work of researcher Ania Korsunska shows disinformation and misinformation spread far and wide, and corrections can’t catch up because people rarely go back to the original story.

Recent research has shown that misinformation spreads far and wide, and corrections kind of limp behind, but never catch up. People never spread corrections – they’re never going to go as far as the original story.

– Ania Korsunska

The good news? Brands don’t have to accept reactive crisis management as part of their day-to-day. Disinformation and misinformation have a footprint. You can stay a step ahead of it if you know what to look for.

Click below to watch a webinar where we dispel the top 5 misinformation myths of misinformation and share how brands can identify and mitigate misinformation spread before it goes viral.

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