Disruptive by Design: Misinformation and Disinformation Are Everywhere

November 1, 2020
By Jennifer Miller

Misinformation is the spreading of wrongful information without intentionally doing so. It can be a simple matter of getting the facts wrong, misremembering some details or sharing a meme.

Disinformation, on the other hand, is deliberate and without regard for second or third-order effects. Russia spreading conspiracy theories on social media to sow discord in other countries is one example; fraud scams are another. Intent makes all the difference. Malice or nefarious intent generally accompanies disinformation while misinformation stems from a generally innocent source.

Disinformation, like misinformation, is everywhere. Plain and simple. It is plentiful in all communities—especially intelligence—and across the globe.

Perhaps the most common examples of disinformation exist in politics, especially during campaign season. The phrase “politicking” indicates a person or group is practicing their persuasion skills to convince an audience to adopt a belief or to either take action or refrain from action.

However, little stops an audience from fact-checking or learning more. We have all heard of “spinning” stories for the media to captivate an audience and sway opinion. But even with objective news stories, word counts, airtime, limited information prior to deadlines and other factors could mean there is much more to a particular report. It is an audience’s responsibility to consider that report’s information may be slanted, misunderstood or simply missing.

I blame the sheer amount of misinformation available as the core contributor to disinformation. For instance, one documentary I saw tried to conclude that the flow of funding from major meat producers to leading health organizations meant the health organizations were supporting the “bad guys.” However, other explanations exist, such as financial charitable contributions, financial support to studies and research (in part or whole) or financial aid to programs effectively weaning people from risky lifestyles.

Researchers like myself realize that three factors plague situations involving misinformation and disinformation: research being reliable, valid and recent. Reliability is about trust; trust in the measuring tools, trust in honest responses from survey takers and trust in the same or highly similar results when conditions repeat. Validity is similar to appropriateness in the type of study approach, scale and sample size. Recent, or relevant, captures the importance of sensibly considering older information in light of newer information—making comparisons and contrasts and building the body of knowledge. Looking back in history, crazy studies have produced opinion-flipping results only to be disproved later courtesy of additional studies, newer technology, shifts in focus, funding and other factors.

Just think—we once thought cigarettes were healthy!

Misinformation, which initially can be well-intended, can also be weaponized as disinformation, which is propaganda’s evil twin luring the next victim. Moving forward, I hope we all look at misinformation and disinformation with critical eyes as to the source and intent. Truly, both are everywhere; however, we have a consumer responsibility to be on alert and open-minded and to trust in moderation.

Jennifer Miller is a financial manager for the Defense Health Agency. She previously supported the National Guard Bureau Headquarters’ Joint Staff and the Air Force and Army at locations along the East Coast. She is a Certified Government Financial Manager, a Certified Defense Financial Manager with acquisition specialty and a member of the American Society of Military Comptroller’s Washington Chapter.

The views expressed here are hers alone and do not represent the views or opinions of the Defense Health Agency, the Department of Defense or other organizations with which she has had an affiliation.

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