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Disinformation and Fake News: Definitions

A guide that provides definitions and resources related to the the topic of fake news

Source: Security and Human Rights Monitor - O.S.C.E.

speech balloons coming from loud speaker saying fake news

Source: Flavijus/Getty Images

What is Disinformation?

The Wilson Center

Disinformation is the deliberate and often covert spreading of false information.

Disinformation Research Group (Federation of American Scientists - FAS)

Disinformation is any communication (either overt or covert) containing intentionally false material, often combined selectively with true information, which seeks to mislead and manipulate an audience. The volume and velocity of the current disinformation tsunami surrounding COVID-19 is unprecedented compared to any other time in human history.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Healthcare Disinformation

  • Disinformation; also called “active measures” when referring to its use by a state for national security and power projection purposes
  • The difference between disinformation and misinformation is intent
  • Not all false stories are organized campaigns pushed by a nation-state
  • Often indistinguishable from conspiracies, and often piggy back on them
  •  Many countries, both powerful and established as well as smaller, engage in disinformation
  •  There are estimates of over 10,000 individual disinformation operations during the Cold War
    • It’s believed to be even more prevalent in the Internet Age
  • Disinformation is very challenging to deal with because:
    • It can be difficult to identify
    • It can be difficult to trace to its source
    • It can be difficult to counteract

What Is Fake News?

Center for Information Technology & Society (University of California at Santa Barbara)

Fake news is a multi-step process that involves making or taking content that others have produced, passing it off as real news, and capitalizing on social media to get as much attention as possible.

Science Magazine (American Association for the Advancement of Science‚Äč)

We define “fake news” to be fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but not in organizational process or intent. Fake-news outlets, in turn, lack the news media's editorial norms and processes for ensuring the accuracy and credibility of information. Fake news overlaps with other information disorders, such as misinformation (false or misleading information) and disinformation (false information that is purposely spread to deceive people).

Journalist's Resource (A project of Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center and the Carnegie-Knight Initiative)

“Fake news” is a term that can mean different things, depending on the context. News satire is often called fake news as are parodies such as the “Saturday Night Live” mock newscast Weekend Update. Much of the fake news that flooded the internet during the 2016 election season consisted of written pieces and recorded segments promoting false information or perpetuating conspiracy theories. Some news organizations published reports spotlighting examples of hoaxes, fake news and misinformation on Election Day 2016.


Digital Misinformation/Disinformation and Children: 10 Things You Need to Know (UNICEF)

Misinformation is false or misleading information that is unwittingly shared, while disinformation is deliberately created and distributed with an intent to deceive or harm.

Misinformation and public opinion of science and health: Approaches, findings, and future directions by Michael A. Cacciatore - colloquium paper (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS))

Arguably the most commonly applied definition of misinformation is the one offered by Lewandowsky et al. (6), who refer to misinformation as “any piece of information that is initially processed as valid but is subsequently retracted or corrected” (6). Others have removed the “processing” element from this definition, describing misinformation as information that is initially presented as true but later shown to be false (e.g., refs. 7 and 8).


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