Living in the digital age, the power of information is exceptional. Yet, this scale of hyper-connectivity has also given rise to complex phenomena including distorted information which is distributed at an unprecedented scale, especially through social media platforms.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been bombarded with what we generally call ‘fake news’ – from how the coronavirus is fake to how it is the product of some grand scheme to kill this many number of people around the world to sending economies crumbling by creating an environment of fear to how the vaccines will either end up killing more people to installing microchips in its recipients. Other than these conspiracy theories, there were also the lesser understood versions of information about the pandemic and too much read into it. With COVID-19 vaccines being made available across the world and people being asked to get vaccinated, these ‘fake news’ maybe more dangerous than most of us perceive, and not just on the topic of COVID-19. In fact, the scope of such news goes beyond to defame and sideline nations, international initiatives…basically as far as the imagination goes.
Yet there are organizations across the world, which work to filter such news. The EU Disinfo Lab (DisInfo.eu) for instance, which works with disinformation activists and experts and is an independent non-profit organization focused on tackling sophisticated disinformation campaigns targeting the EU, its member states, core institutions, and core values. According to them, the term ‘fake news’ is quite insufficient to explain the complex phenomenon that it actually is. In fact, another organization called First Draft (FirstDraftNews.org) that pledges to protect communities across the world from harmful disinformation; terms this phenomenon ‘the information disorder’ and clarifies that fake news is basically a term used by certain politicians around the world to discredit news they disagree with. Both these organizations attempt to explain what this disorder actually constitutes of.
It usually starts with Disinformation – such information that is false and purposely created to harm a person, community, organization or country like rumors and conspiracy theories.
It can be fabricated or deliberately manipulated content. The intention behind it is either to make money, generate political influence whether international or domestic or to create trouble for the sake of creating trouble.
When shared, disinformation usually turns into Misinformation.
Also, it constitutes unintentional mistakes like incorrect photo captions, dates, statistics, translation, or when satire is taken seriously. Yet misinformation may not always be shared with the intention of creating harm; rather the people who share it do not always realize that it may be incorrect or misleading. This happens to the extent that some piece of disinformation may be shared by people thinking that they are ‘helping’ in some way. This psyche is basically driven by socio-psychological factors at play according to which people connect to their respective ‘tribes’ whether it’s a particular religion, race, ethnicity, political ideology – or party for that matter, people following certain ideologies like those who are against COVID-19 vaccinations, animal rights activists or those who support animal rights. According to First Draft, those involved in spreading disinformation have learned that using genuine content reframed in a new context – even misleading – is likely to not get picked up by AI systems for fact-checking. Hence the power associated with this tool.
The third kind of information in the information disorder is called Malinformation.
This kind of information is real, and is shared to negatively propagate against a person, organization or country. It includes deliberately publishing private information or purposely changing time, date or context of genuine content for personal or corporate public gains. Malinformation may actually be digged out first before it’s circulated by hacking into emails and databases, accessing phone call recordings etc. For instance, a judge is about to award a court sentence to an influential personality and there is information being circulated to damage the judge’s reputation, relating to some earlier part of his career.
Besides these three overarching types, there are seven categories that are seen repeatedly in the information disorder ecosystem. At the lowest end of the paradigm, deemed a lot less damaging versus the rest is Satire or Parody, which although has not much of an intention to harm but has the potential to fool. Higher in the list is False Connection; in which headlines, visuals, or captions don’t support the content, for instance, headlines or pictures being used as clickbait. Third in the hierarchy is Misleading Content, which is using misleading information to frame an individual or an issue. Beyond this comes False Context where genuine content is shared with false contextual information. Then comes Imposter Content where genuine sources are impersonated, for example using a renowned website’s logo to legitimize inaccurate information and then circulating it over any of the social media platforms. Sixth in the list and near to the higher end is Manipulated Content, according to which genuine information or imagery is manipulated to deceive – mostly done through photos and videos. For instance, a picture is photoshopped into another picture and made to look like an original. The seventh and the most complex category in the information disorder hierarchy is Fabricated Content, which relates to new content that is completely false and is designed only with the intention of deceiving and negative propaganda. Examples include deepfakes i.e. seemingly real yet fake photos and videos created using AI algorithms, or readfakes where similar technology is used to generate text across websites, newsletters, and social platforms that is convincing as well as engaging.
This discussion is intended to help understand the complexity of the information ecosystem and the disorders that have now become a part of our content consumption dynamics. With increasing technologies, it is expected that information distortion and disorder will become even more convincing and sophisticated. The need of the hour is to understand the challenges that we all, as content creators and drivers face, as well as to facilitate our audiences in comprehending them and realize how to deal with them.
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