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Making sense of misinformation part one: What is misinformation?

You’re scrolling through social media. Bored, you swipe aimlessly past pictures of puppies and people’s dinner, until something catches your attention. It’s the headline to an article – a topic you’re interested in – and it’s shocking. Engaged, you click, you read, you press share.

Sound familiar?

We’ve all done it. And, whether we’ve been aware of it or not, we may have contributed to the spread of misinformation.

But what is misinformation – is it not the same as disinformation?

Even though they might sound the same, they aren’t. Disinformation, or ‘fake news’, is false information spread with the intent to cause harm. It is malicious in nature. Misinformation, however, is not. defines ‘misinformation as “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead”. Therefore, this means that lots of fake news is spread by people with the intention to help and inform others. Think back to that quick share from earlier, did you check the reliability of your source or the credibility of the claims? The danger is when disinformation narratives seep into public discourse, being delivered onto our timelines and into our WhatsApp groups by well-meaning individuals.

Just to add to the confusion, misinformation and disinformation are sometimes used interchangeably.

Where has misinformation suddenly come from?

The rise of misinformation in our society has been supercharged by what academics call ‘information overload’. The 21st century saw a boom in information sources. Where newspapers, books and word of mouth were our primary sources, now we have the internet and, with it, social media. Put simply, now more than ever before, our brains are processing more information than they can handle, thus leaving us overwhelmed and more vulnerable to being misled. Think back to the political earthquakes of 2016. If it feels like the years since then have been a blur, it’s no accident.

Where do we draw the line between false information and reframing?

It’s a question which asks for reflection. Was that post you shared simply a new perspective on a popular issue, or a fabricated one? With so many nuances, the OECD has helpfully categorised accusations of ‘fake news’ into four different types of information:

  • Outright false information
  • Misapplied or misrepresented facts
  • Omission of information
  • Misleading editorial choices of what “should be” news

Misinformation is, as with many things, a product of lies, context, silence, bias and, ultimately, in the eye of the beholder. The pressing question now is: how do we fight it?

You can read part two in the ‘Making sense of misinformation’ series: ‘Why are people falling for misinformation?’. To find out more about how our anti-misinformation services can help your organisation, email

This article was written by Stefan Rollnick, Head of the Misinformation Cell at Lynn.

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