What Is Disinformation? Definition and Examples

Senator Patrick Leahy at hearing on disinformation.
Senator Patrick Leahy at a hearing on disinformation in the 2016 election.

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Disinformation is the deliberate and purposeful distribution of false information. The term is generally used to describe an organized campaign to deceptively distribute untrue material intended to influence public opinion.

In recent years, the term has become especially associated with the spread of "fake news" on social media as a strategy of negative political campaigning.

Key Takeaways: Disinformation

  • The terms disinformation and misinformation are often used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. Disinformation requires that the message be false, distributed purposefully, and with the goal of altering public opinion.
  • The strategic use of disinformation can be traced back to the Soviet Union in the 1920s, where it was known as dezinformatsiya.
  • In English, the term was first used in the 1950s, referring to Cold War disinformation campaigns.
  • Social media has exacerbated the impact of disinformation campaigns.

Definition of Disinformation

A key component of the definition of disinformation is the intention of the person or entity creating the message. Disinformation is distributed with the specific purpose of misleading the public. The false information is meant to impact society by swaying the opinions of the members of the audience.

The term disinformation is said to be derived from a Russian word, dezinformatsiya, with some accounts holding that Joseph Stalin coined it. It is generally accepted that the Soviet Union pioneered the deliberate use of false information as a weapon of influence in the 1920s. The word remained relatively obscure for decades and was used mainly by military or intelligence professionals, not the general public, until the 1950s.

Disinformation vs. Misinformation

An important distinction to make is that disinformation does not mean misinformation. Someone can spread misinformation innocently by saying or writing things that are untrue while believing them to be true. For example, a person sharing a news report on social media may commit an act of misinformation if the source turns out to unreliable and the information incorrect. The specific person who shared it acts as a result of misinformation if he or she believes it to be true.

On the other hand, deliberately distributing false material with the purpose of generating outrage or chaos in society, essentially as a political dirty trick, would rightfully be referred to as spreading disinformation. Following the same example, the agent who created the false information in the unreliable source is guilty of creating and spreading disinformation. The intention is to cause a reaction in the public opinion based on the false information that he or she created.

What Is a Disinformation Campaign?

Disinformation is often part of a larger effort, such as a campaign, plan, or agenda. It may take advantage of well-established facts while tweaking details, omitting context, blending falsehoods, or distorting circumstances. The goal is to make the disinformation believable in order to reach the target audience.

Multiple acts of disinformation may be carried out simultaneously in different outlets to achieve a goal. For example, different articles intended to discredit a political candidate may circulate at the same time, with each version tailored to the readership. A younger reader may see an article about the candidate treating a young person poorly, while an elderly reader may see the same article but the victim may be an elderly person. Targeting of this sort is especially prominent in social media sites.

In the modern era, the 2016 efforts waged by Russians targeting the U.S. elections is perhaps the best-known example of a disinformation campaign. In this case, the perpetrators used Facebook and Twitter to disseminate "fake news," as was revealed by the hearings on Capitol Hill which examined and exposed the scheme.

In May 2018, members of Congress ultimately revealed more than 3,000 Facebook ads which had been purchased by Russian agents during the 2016 election. The ads were full of deliberate falsehoods designed to stir outrage. The placement of the ads had been fairly sophisticated, targeting and reaching millions of Americans at very little cost.

On February 16, 2018, the Office of the Special Counsel, led by Robert Mueller, indicted the Russian government troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, along with 13 individuals and three companies. The highly detailed 37-page indictment described a sophisticated disinformation campaign designed to create discord and influence the 2016 election.

Russian Disinformation

Disinformation campaigns had been a standard tool during the Cold War and mentions of Russian disinformation would occasionally appear in the American press. In 1982, TV Guide, one of the most popular magazines in America at the time, even published a cover story warning about Russian disinformation.

Recent research has indicated that the Soviet Union spread disinformation about America and the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. A conspiracy theory that AIDS had been created in an American germ warfare lab was spread by the Soviet KGB, according to a 2018 NPR report.

The use of information as a potential weapon in the modern era was documented in a deeply reported article in the New York Times Magazine in June 2015. Writer Adrian Chen recounted remarkable stories of how Russian trolls, operating from an office building in St. Petersburg, Russia, had posted untrue information to wreak havoc in America. The Russian troll farm described in the article, the Internet Research Agency, was the same organization that would be indicted by Robert Mueller's office in February 2018.

Sources:

  • Manning, Martin J. "Disinformation." Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence and Security, edited by K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner, vol. 1, Gale, 2004, pp. 331-335. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Chen, Adrian. "The Agency." New York Times Sunday Magazine, 7 June 2015. p. 57.
  • Barnes, Julian E. "Cyber Command Operation Took Down Russian Troll Farm for Midterm Elections." New York Times, 26 February 2019. p. A9.
  • "disinformation." Oxford Dictionary of English. Ed. Stevenson, Angus. Oxford University Press, January 01, 2010. Oxford Reference.