Sorting through the vast amount of information created and shared online is challenging, even for the experts.
Just talking about this ever-shifting landscape is confusing, with terms like “misinformation,” “disinformation” and “hoax” getting mixed up with buzzwords like “fake news.”
Misinformation is perhaps the most innocent of the terms – it’s misleading information created or shared without the intent to manipulate people. An example would be sharing a rumor that a celebrity died, before finding out it’s false.
Disinformation, by contrast, refers to deliberate attempts to confuse or manipulate people with dishonest information. These campaigns, at times orchestrated by groups outside the U.S., such as the Internet Research Agency, a well-known Russian troll factory, can be coordinated across multiple social media accounts and may also use automated systems, called bots, to post and share information online. Disinformation can turn into misinformation when spread by unwitting readers who believe the material.
Hoaxes, similar to disinformation, are created to persuade people that things that are unsupported by facts are true. For example, the person responsible for the celebrity-death story has created a hoax.
Though many people are just paying attention to these problems now, they are not new – and they even date back to ancient Rome. Around 31 B.C., Octavian, a Roman military official, launched a smear campaign against his political enemy, Mark Antony. This effort used, as one writer put it, “short, sharp slogans written on coins in the style of archaic Tweets.” His campaign was built around the point that Antony was a soldier gone awry: a philanderer, a womanizer and a drunk not fit to hold office. It worked. Octavian, not Antony, became the first Roman emperor, taking the name Augustus Caesar.
The University of Missouri example
In the 21st century, new technology makes manipulation and fabrication of information simple. Social networks make it easy for uncritical readers to dramatically amplify falsehoods peddled by governments, populist politicians and dishonest businesses.
Our research focuses specifically on how certain types of disinformation can turn what might otherwise be normal developments in society into major disruptions.
One sobering example we’ve reviewed in detail is a situation you might remember: racial tensions at the University of Missouri in 2015, in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. One of us, Michael O’Brien, was dean of the university’s College of Arts and Science at the time and saw firsthand the protests and their aftermath.
Original publication 21 April, 2021
Posted on NatCorn 5th May 2021
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