Get the 411 on misinformation, misinformation, and misinformation

by Ana Lopez

Perry Carpenter is chief evangelist for KnowBe4 Inc.provider of the popular Security Awareness Training & Simulated Phishing platform.

People are continuously exposed to misinformation and disinformation. Be it extremist groups kicking conspiracy and violence everywhere Michigan until Germanyuntold millions of people consume and spread disinformation and misinformation online every day. Even the WHO marked the word “infodemic.”

Elon Musk’s recent takeover of Twitter has revived the debate between free speech, content moderation, and censorship. As the author of two books on security culture and awareness, I am witnessing an alarming number of organized cybercriminals and state-sponsored terrorists increasingly weaponizing information to falsify, exploit, target and manipulate people. But before we dive deeper, let’s start by clarifying the distinction between misinformation and disinformation.

Misinformation vs misinformation vs misinformation

The main difference between misinformation, disinformation and misinformation is the intent of the person or entity providing the information. Misinformation is the broader term and refers to each incorrect or misleading information. Misinformation could be a trusted friend passing along a plausible-sounding piece of information that he himself believes to be true, when in fact the information is false.

Disinformation, on the other hand, does on purpose. People or entities spreading disinformation know that the information is false or misleading and they want to deceive or mislead their audience.

And misinformation often stems from the truth, but is exaggerated or contextually misrepresented in a way that can be misleading and cause potential harm.

But for my purposes here, when I discuss false information, I will refer to that as misinformation. When writing about intentionally false or misleading information, I use the more specific term disinformation.

Types and examples of misinformation

The Columbia Journalism Review describes six types of disinformation seen in the context of US elections, and these categories apply outside of politics as well. For example, companies may provide disinformation to improve their corporate image by downplaying environmental issues or to spoil sales by exaggerating the benefits of products or services.

The six types of misinformation are listed below, along with examples to illustrate each type.

1. Authentic material used in the wrong context

This is information (including images, videos, audio recordings, etc.) that is authentic in the sense that the content itself has not been manufactured to mislead anyone. However, the context in which the content is presented is misleading. For example, scammers are often doctors images of celebrities to secure false recommendations for their products and services and to mislead individuals and companies into unscrupulous schemes and programs.

2. Imposter sites designed to look like brands we already know

Imposter news sites are without a doubt a form of disinformation. It’s hard to argue that someone would have faked a legitimate news source and accidentally published false information attributable to that source. For example, scammers recently impersonated pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company with a fake (but verified) Twitter account and announced that they were giving away free insulin. Eli Lilly’s stock price plummeted 4.37% after the bogus announcement.

3. Fake news sites

A related concept is creating fake news sites that do not pretend to be an existing legitimate news source, but create a fake news source that appears legitimate. This is often mentioned “Pink Slime” journalism (paywall) and is often used in the context of outside entities masquerading as local news outlets to promote some political agenda.

4. False information

False information may be what comes to mind in the first place when people hear the word “disinformation”. False information is just another way to label a lie. For example, researchers recently discovered company websites that did fake “About Us” pages, full of fake names and photos of employees that don’t really exist. Using such techniques, scammers can improve their company’s credibility and present themselves as a large and trusted company to potential customers.

5. Manipulated Content

Manipulated content blurs the lines between some of the other examples of misinformation I’ve discussed. This starts with a genuine article, image, video, etc., and then modifies some aspect of that content to mislead others. For example, a sensational news headline or a social media post designed as clickbait by fraudsters to manipulate victims into opening the article, visiting the website or downloading an attachment.

6. Parody Content

Parody content is often initially created with no intent to mislead anyone, but may later be unwittingly or knowingly used by others to support dubious claims. Phishers often abuse this parody content policies on social media platforms such as Twitter to defraud victims.

Avoiding the trap of misinformation/disinformation

The hearts and minds of consumers of all types are valuable prizes, which means sources of disinformation are constantly coming up with new ways to deceive and deceive. This makes it increasingly difficult for the average media consumer to identify possible disinformation.

A few simple tips can go a long way for companies to avoid such pitfalls:

• Teach employees to practice a healthy dose of online skepticism. If something seems too exaggerated to be true, dig a little deeper to verify the questionable information.

• Ask employees to pay attention to the sources of information. Is the source a reliable media outlet employing full-time fact-checkers, or is it a genuine government source? Or is it an outlet you’ve never heard of or an entity with an agenda that might be pushing it?

• Keep employees informed about emerging threats and disinformation trends to better understand the strategies adversaries are currently using.

• Encourage conversation and sharing experiences to help your team better learn how to avoid falling prey to untruths.

• Do your part to stop the spread. Please double check the information before reposting or sharing it with others. Don’t trust other companies based on their website or followers alone. Do your own due diligence to verify their credibility and authenticity.

Everyone is fighting mis- and disinformation. As a leader you can help. Commit to ongoing awareness and communication to help separate what is real from what is not.


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