In recent years, digital technology and social media have taken the world by storm. People spend significant amounts of time scanning the headlines for the day's top stories right from their phones. We get information and hear political opinions on social media. We even sometimes find ourselves falling down internet rabbit holes.
Easy access to information is a good thing, and it's excellent for keeping abreast of the latest news during election season. However, the truth matters when it comes to the details, and facts should be backed by evidence. Not all media outlets present details with honesty or fairness, and that presents unique challenges to democracy.
Information that isn't true falls into two main categories: misinformation and disinformation. Both terms are similar in some respects. They each describe false statements that are shared with the general public. But there is one big difference, and that comes down to intention.
Misinformation is false information that is spread without the intent to deceive others.
An example of misinformation might be a claim that a political candidate has a certain policy stance that they never actually advocated for. For instance, during an election, a rumor could circulate falsely claiming that a candidate plans to dramatically raise taxes on the middle class, when in fact, the candidate has made no such proposal. This type of misinformation can spread rapidly across social media or through word of mouth, potentially influencing voters' perceptions and decisions based on incorrect or fabricated information.
Any information that is false or misleading presents challenges to democracy. Even false details about a story or an event that are spread without malicious intent have consequences.
In a case of misinformation, the person or group spreading the information had no idea that it was false at the time. They were either confused, mistaken, or misinformed by someone else. In politics, any kind of wrongful information can be harmful to voters.
Some common examples of these misleading statements include initial statements made about recent health care laws. When the Affordable Care Act first became law, there were rumors about its impact on benefits for seniors.
Rumors circulated stating that the new healthcare laws would reduce Medicare for those 65 and over. Others speculated through the grapevine that people were still paying out-of-pocket for preventive care and other services. But such talk was debunked when people discovered that preventive services were free under the new health insurance laws.
Regardless of motive, sharing wrong information has negative consequences for everyone involved. When it comes to greater issues like economic inequality or immigration, it can even harm democracy. Political polarization can result when both sides clash over an issue due to being misinformed.
Social media outlets have stepped up in recent years to stop false information in its tracks. Independent fact-checkers look for posts that are inaccurate or misleading and will remove them immediately. The user is notified immediately by email and given a warning about their account.
Opponents of fact-checkers often argue about being misinformed by them. Public concerns about how the internet appears to control one's own beliefs have suggested that a democratic recession may be happening. But fact-checkers who flag certain posts have a job to do, and that's to keep the public from being misled.
Disinformation refers to spreading false information or fake news, but unlike misinformation, it is done with ill intentions. Someone who knowingly spreads a rumor is doing so with the aim of deliberately misleading others.
Some recent examples of disinformation include the arguments over public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most citizens knew that getting vaccinated would protect people from illness and slow the spread of the virus. Others rallied against institutional solutions to COVID. An example of disinformation in this scenario would be the backlash against vaccine mandates based on false news reports regarding dangerous side effects. Consequently, there has been widespread political polarization regarding preventive measures.
Disinformation is a common tactic used by political opponents in an effort to sway voters to their side. In other cases, spreading lies about independent candidates is often used to discredit them in an upcoming election, thus leading to political polarization.
The most common target for disinformation is a political opponent or organization. The intent is to use wrong information about an opponent in an attempt to sway the vote. In other cases, minorities and women are targeted by propaganda and its impact. This sows the seeds of political polarization as people and candidates become increasingly divided over critical issues. Institutional solutions may become necessary to slow the spread of anything that's misleading.
It's easy to confuse misinformation and disinformation. Both terms represent a similar concept, that of something that isn't true. In regular conversations and in the news, it's common for these terms to overlap, despite the important distinction between them.
A 2016 survey indicated that Americans are concerned about misleading details in the news. According to the Pew Research Center, many Americans said that fake news and misleading figures are the causes of uncertainty regarding current events.
Information, whether it's true or not, can go viral within seconds. If enough people are enticed by a juicy story, they will continue to like and share with friends and followers. With all of the data that streams by online, it's important to know the difference between misinformation vs. disinformation, as they can both present challenges to democracy — though one is more concerning than the other.
Social media and its widespread use has a huge impact on public opinion, especially with political issues such as the economy, economic inequality, illegal immigration, and foreign affairs. It can be hard to know the difference between disinformation vs. misinformation, so having a third-party source of information is beneficial.
There are institutional solutions in place that can curb the spread of false data on the internet. A prime example of these institutional solutions are independent fact-checkers. Posts containing false or misleading data in any form are flagged and sent to an agency for review. Some posts will be declared false, misleading, or not fully accurate. Users will then see a post getting blurred out or blocked from public view. In some cases, a post will be flagged as having missing information. The idea is to avoid common errors associated with inaccurate posts that present challenges for democracy.
How do we slow the spread of misinformation and disinformation — and how do we reduce their negative impact on democracy?
Independent fact-checking is one valuable solution. Encouraging a more informed electorate is also key to preventing the spread of misinformation and disinformation. So is holding leaders accountable who knowingly circulate false information.
Here are a few tips to minimize the effects of misinformation and disinformation in your own life:
Consider diverse perspectives. Don’t limit yourself to one news source or one way of consuming information. Be open to listening to the perspectives of people from a variety of backgrounds.
Assess credibility. As you consume information online, consider what source it’s coming from. Who is the author? When was it published? What is the motivation behind posting this information?
Discuss with others. Share what you learn with those in your community, and discuss your thoughts without giving into political polarization. Be respectful and considerate of others’ views.
Want a safe place to get started discussing your views and learnings with others? Join Good Party’s Discord community, and connect with independent thinkers across the country. Or find another local forum where you can have constructive conversations and deepen your understanding.