We have gotten accustomed in recent years to living with both inaccurate and all-out fake information on social media and in the news. And as the current U.S. president refuses to concede the election — citing baseless claims of electoral fraud — and as the rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine (hopefully) approaches, it is again time to steel ourselves against the onslaught of misinformation and disinformation. And it’s important to know the difference, because they’re not the same thing.
Remember way back when we were still trying to get comfortable with calling a lie a “lie”? In the past, oh, four years, we’ve gotten better about telling it like it is — a lie is not an inaccuracy or spin or an exaggeration or a stretching the truth. It’s an intentionally false statement. You tell a lie with the intention of deceiving, and intent is everything when it comes to determining a false statement from a lie.
Same with misinformation and disinformation, which have two different meanings.
Misinformation is “incorrect or misleading information,” according to Merriam-Webster. This is the “spin” version of a lie. Whether or not there was intent, misinformation is incorrect or inaccurate information that causes people to be misinformed.
Disinformation is more sinister. It’s “false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumours) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth,” Merriam-Webster says.
As we navigate through what may be a rocky transition of presidential power and the ongoing pandemic, here’s a mnemonic device to help you remember the difference: Misinformation is misleading. Disinformation is a damn lie.
This article was originally published in 2019 and updated on November 9, 2020 to reflect current information and context.