Both misinformation and disinformation are not new occurrences. They have been readily and repeatedly discussed by many organizations including the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organizatiom (UNESCO). Yet the spread of false information continues to occur, a fact that has never been more readily apparent than during the COVID pandemic, and more recently the war in Ukraine. In 2020, the United Nations highlighted this issue stating how “Unreliable and false information is spreading around the world to such an extent, that some commentators are now referring to the new avalanche of misinformation that’s accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic as a ‘disinfodemic’.”
Throughout the pandemic fear of the unknown spread incorrect information so prolifically that governments and corporations were forced to intervene. In its aftermath, many people have called for governments to increase regulations on corporations to curb this problem. While it is true that having more transparency and accountability on corporations will help there are things that each and every one of us can do to help prevent the spread of misinformation.
Misinformation vs Disinformation, What’s the difference?
Before we delve into why misinformation and disinformation are occurring and what we can do to stop it, we must first understand what these two words mean. According to UNESCO:
- Disinformation: Information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organisation or country
- Misinformation: Information that is false but not created with the intention of causing harm
The important difference between the two is that while some individuals and organizations spread false information to deliberately advance their own agendas, others do so without bad intent. A large reason behind why false information is spread is because well-intended people spread it unknowingly.
When disinformation is repeated and amplified, including by influential people, the grave danger is that information which is based on truth, ends up having only marginal impactGuy Berger (Director for Policies and Strategies regarding Communication and Information at UNESCO)
Why is Misinformation Spreading?
At the most fundamental level, the reason that we as individuals contribute to the spread of false information is through not thinking about how, why, and what information they consume. Instead, we allow cognitive biases, such as the ones listed below, to influence the information we consume.
- Confirmation Bias: People tend to favor information the reinforces things that we already think or believe
- Negative Bias: Individual tend to be overly focused on negative information and allow it to effect our decisions
- Attentional Bias: A tendency to favour only one possibility while overlooking other possibilities and outcomes
- Bandwagon Bias: When people tend to form opinions or make actions based on what other people are doing
Social media and search engines add to this problem by distributing information based on popularity, not truth. They also do so without fact-checking. Unreliable and false information which feeds people’s fears and hopes quickly becomes more popular and appealing than the truth. In the age of the internet and information abundance, uneducated consumption of information leads to an avalanche of misinformation just like uneducated consumption of food can lead to obesity.
How Individuals Can Help Stop the Spread of Misinformation
The most effective way that we can each individually address the increasing disinfodemic is through education and self-awareness. Similar to how we learn about nutrition to develop healthy eating habits, education in information consumption is the most effective way to address the disinfodemic.
Learn About our Cognitive Biases and How they can Affect our Decisions
The first step in stopping the spread of misinformation is understanding our biases and how they can affect who we are as people and what we choose to do. The decisions we make now are all affected by our experiences throughout life. By being aware of our own biases and open to critical feedback from other perspectives we can begin to stop the spread of misinformation.
Challenge Yourself to Evaluate Your Sources of Information for Biases and Expertise
We live in a world where all kinds of information are openly and readily available on the internet. Just on YouTube alone, over 500 hours of video content is uploaded in a single minute. As a population, we are more connected than ever and information and ideas have never been more accessible. This level of connectedness allows us to discuss and learn from those who have achieved things that we hope to achieve. It has allowed us to think about new perspectives and be inspired.
The challenge is that the internet also has very little to no filters. Anybody can use the internet to spread information, even if the information they discuss is flat out wrong. To be able to use the internet effectively we must each create our own filters to decide what content and people we want to engage in. Take a look at each and every app or website you get your information from and assess it for quality of content.
For those interested, Journalism, ‘Fake News’ and Disinformation: A Handbook for Journalism Education and Training provides a framework and recommendations for how journalists, a profession that is held to a high standard of accountability in their research, should evaluate sources of information.
Understand the Power of Being Able to Diversify Sources of Information
An easy trap to fall into is to go to a single expert regarding a topic and get all your information from them. Let’s be clear that getting information from someone who is an expert in a field is much better than someone who isn’t. However, if you’re only talking to a single expert you run the risk of missing out on other experts who can add their own perspective on a topic of interest.
Being able to call upon a diverse source of information is used at the highest level of academics. For example, when evaluating medical literature to create clinical practice guidelines researchers critically appraise each and every study performed by experts in their respective fields. These diverse sources of information can then be synthesized into systematic reviews which will influence the systems put in place at hospitals.
Oftentimes each source of information contains different levels of truth to them. By diversifying the places we get information from we can put together a better picture of the entire story.
Shape the Environment You Live in
Not only has the internet given us a way to learn new information, but it also gives us a great opportunity to shape our environment. The more any person tunes into a specific topic or person, the more times we view a video, or like a picture, the more likely it is that the same or similar content will be shown to others and ourselves.
Just by choosing to interact with specific content, we can create a small shift in the way the internet works. If enough people do the same thing we can make meaningful change. If you want to make an even bigger impact create content of your own and gather an audience that you can use to collectively grow through. The beauty of the internet is that it is free and easy to make a change.
Moderate Consumption is Key
You may have heard the age-old saying “too much of anything is bad for you”. The same goes for our consumption of information. Because of the great vastness of information available for consumption we run the risk of having an information overload. Information overload occurs when one consumes so much information that it is no longer possible effectively to use it to complete the original task. It is extremely easy to get sidetracked when using the internet and is a common mistake of many students. The problem is that too much uneeded information can impede our decision-making process and result in poor, or no, decisions being made. By challenging ourselves to consume information in moderation we can prevent information overload and focus on the task at hand.
Misinformation is rampant and is unlikely to stop unless we work to create change. We must learn about cognitive biases and how they lead to misinformation. We must challenge ourselves to evaluate sources of information for an author’s biases and level of expertise. We should understand the power of being able to diversify sources of information to balance perspectives. Finally, we must develop the skills and knowledge for moderate consumption.
Unless we collectively search and demand the truth, the spread of misinformation will continue. By working together to critically evaluate ourselves and the information we consume we can prevent the spread of misinformation and stop the disinfodemic.