From unsubstantiated claims of election fraud to vaccine conspiracies, a state of “information disorder” has consumed the online ecosystem in recent years. Consisting of mis-, dis- and malinformation, the phenomenon can be difficult for journalists to understand, study and combat.
Dr. Claire Wardle, the co-director of the Information Futures Lab at Brown University, discussed information disorder in the health sector and beyond during a recent ICFJ Disarming Disinformation master class, held in partnership with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.
Wardle, who also co-founded the misinformation education site First Draft, offered essential advice to journalists who want to research and combat the issue.
Mis-, dis- and malinformation
Although often used interchangeably, mis-, dis- and malinformation are distinct components of information disorder. “If we don't get the categories right [when defining them], we can't study it,” Wardle cautioned.
- Misinformation is “the sharing of false or misleading content because of a belief that it will help,” said Wardle. The average person is the biggest spreader of misinformation: they may share information without first verifying whether it’s accurate or not, or because they genuinely believe it is true.
- Malinformation refers to truthful information that intends to cause harm. For example, a documentary released in the aftermath of the 2020 U.S. elections included videos of ballot boxes that the movie's producers linked to the unfounded claims of voter fraud. When paired with these claims, the videos promoted false narratives about a “stolen election.”
- Disinformation lies at the intersection of the mis- and malinformation. It entails false information released and shared with the intention to cause harm. Often, people who spread disinformation do so for political reasons, profit, or to cause chaos.
As there are gray areas between the categories, Wardle recommended that journalists assess content on a series of three spectrums: content accuracy, an individual’s belief in the content, and an individual’s intent to cause harm by spreading that content. A person’s belief in a false narrative, especially, can change how that information spreads and affects the world offline.
“The people that stormed the [U.S.] Capitol on January 6th thought they were preserving democracy. They thought they were saving the Constitution,” said Wardle, referring to the attempted 2021 insurrection in the U.S. “This isn't always as easy as we used to think it was in 2016. The tactics are evolving, the landscape is evolving, and we have to be aware of those shifts in our information ecosystem.”
Journalists as accomplices
Journalists can unwittingly play a role in spreading disinformation on a wider scale. For example, Wardle’s team found that the major U.S. news channels, MSNBC, CNN and Fox News, aired more than 32 hours of coverage specifically around Donald Trump’s tweets, visually displaying 1,954 of them on screen, between January 2020 and January 2021. With often insufficient effort to debunk the content, the TV channels helped ensure Trump and his false claims dominated narratives around the election.
Bad actors today know they can use reporters to their advantage to get media coverage. “The first time that QAnon was mentioned in the U.S. was after a Trump rally, where supporters turned up wearing T-shirts and holding signs,” said Wardle. “On 4Chan they had been discussing where to stand so they could get on camera.”
As a journalist, it’s imperative to consider whether your reporting will play the role that disinformation agents want and need you to play. Even well-meaning attempts to debunk myths may cause information about the conspiracy or misinformation to spread. For example, earlier this year the FDA released a video warning people not to cook chicken in Nyquil. The trend was not particularly popular, yet after the FDA addressed the topic, searches for it surged on TikTok.
“You have to know your audience, and you have to make the decision: at what point is it now worrying enough to my audience that I need to step in and make clear that [misinformation] isn't true?” said Wardle. “Recognize that bad actors are sometimes deliberately trying to get you to debunk because they want you to give them oxygen. There's a lot of space for educating your audiences about that, rather than waiting till they've seen something false and then telling them they're wrong.”
Bad actors will take advantage of journalistic tendencies to earn legitimacy for their conspiracies. As a journalist, always be mindful: “How can you report in a way that doesn't give oxygen to niche communities, and might end up being a recruiting tool?” said Wardle.
How to avoid being used, and get the truth out
There are a few tactics journalists can employ to better identify and push back against information disorder. Understanding and combating a narrative, as opposed to targeting individual actors or rumors, for example, is essential.
“We study this YouTube video, this Facebook post, this tweet. But we have to be better at understanding the ways in which those individual atoms make up how people make sense of the world,” said Wardle. “It's harder to study narratives, so we end up playing Whac-A-Mole with the individual examples, as opposed to understanding how it all fits together.”
She explained how her team of researchers categorized people’s major online gripes with the COVID-19 vaccines into six essential narratives. Fears that the vaccines were unsafe were not the most pressing for the majority of people. Infringements on liberty and freedom topped the list of concerns for English speakers online. For Spanish speakers, moral and religious narratives around the vaccine were most prevalent. French speakers were most concerned about political and economic motives.
“That's what we have to understand; how do we respond to the actual ways that people are talking about vaccines?” said Wardle. “Lots of people, not just disinformation agents, are obsessed with these other ways of thinking.”
Another way to fight back against information disorder? Start making memes. “Many people like us — researchers, journalists, fact checkers, scientists — we love text. We feel awkward about being emotional, being personal, being visual, because it's not the way we're trained,” said Wardle. “But that is what we have to be better at, because that is the way that our brains work. The other side has figured that out much, much, much better than we have.”
Perhaps the biggest dilemma, however, lies in timing. In Wardle’s mind, journalists focus too much on debunking the untrue instead of filling information gaps before conspiracy theorists can. For example, had people been educated on what exactly mRNA is, and that it is a component of some COVID vaccines, bad actors would never have been able to push the narrative that the mRNA vaccines could change your DNA.
“Journalists want to focus on the crazy, the bizarre, the conspiratorial: Bill Gates putting microchips into vaccines. But we need to think about the full information supply chain and data deficits, when people have questions that aren’t being answered,” Wardle urged.
Disarming Disinformation is run by ICFJ with lead funding from the Scripps Howard Foundation, an affiliated organization with the Scripps Howard Fund, which supports The E.W. Scripps Company’s charitable efforts. The three-year project will empower journalists and journalism students to fight disinformation in the news media.