Misinformation and disinformation: what’s in it for spreaders?

Since my colleague Eva and I started our project on anti-vaccination movements, reading about the topic has often led us to academic and media articles on misinformation or disinformation. The distinction between the two is not always clear, but it is based on intent. Disinformation is defined as intentional efforts to mislead people in order to sow distrust and chaos. And just like the general population was flooded with public health terminology (R number, exponential curve and so on) after the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world, our readers, too are increasingly introduced to the typology of misleading claims on various fact-checking websites, social networks, and the media. Eva and I are working on more podcast episodes to explain these distinctions.

You can find some useful resources from First Draft here and here. It is important to note that misinformation and disinformation make use of real facts, but frame them to guide their audience towards misleading conclusions. In data visualisation, using a truncated Y axis is an example of a manipulation that can lead people to misinterpret correct data.

After Eva and I contributed to this article in Re:Baltica, Lithuanian entrepreneur Ugnius Kiguolis sent Eva and me a link to a post on his blog with claims like: that I lack medical education (correct information, but medical education is not needed for the work I do), that Eva and I were paid by George Soros (conspiracy thinking and a huge stretch: we received a highly competitive cross-border investigation grant from Journalismfund.eu, which is partly sponsored by Open Society Foundations), that I failed to double-check Lithuanian fact-checkers’ findings and repeated them uncritically (I did read his and his association’s websites and social media posts, but 15min, Facebook’s official fact-checking team in Lithuania, did it more systematically and wrote about it earlier), that I sent the material to Re:Baltica with an aim to damage the reputations of these politicians and businesspersons (this is conspiracy thinking – a belief that one is so important that people must be scheming against him personally; the truth is that I was searching for texts and videos that scaremonger against vaccines – and landed on these actors).

The rule of thumb is not to repeat misleading claims side-by-side with the truth, and I am only doing it in the space of my blog, where my followers, I assume, can find correct information easily. Also, this is not public health misinformation, and the predictable claims about Soros funding only give us journalists a good laugh. But it’s worth noting that misleading claims, as noted in First Draft reports, typically target information gaps. In this case, readers usually don’t know and don’t care how media grants work, and they also don’t know much about pitching, drafting and editing.

After I translated the Lithuanian material, Eva reviewed my findings and wording and I sent right-of-reply emails to the mentioned actors. After they replied, we wrote up the analysis, then Re:Baltica’s team checked and verified the sources we had used and wrote up the article based on information from three countries. Journalism is always strengthened by collaboration and team work – even if one person has implicit biases (a very human thing), working in a team helps neutralise them and maximise fairness (the lack of a skills mix is one of the reasons why unedited blogs are no match for professional journalism – this is why I use this blog for personal reflections and not for journalism, even though I have loads of unpublished stories I could share). But we wouldn’t use our precious word count for describing this process, because it’s such a basic part of our work.

Similarly, the general public may have lived happily without knowing or thinking too much about the workings of science and its ethics, how science is funded, and how careful science-speak is shaped into policy recommendations. Manipulation of correct information, distortion and conspiracy thinking can mislead and confuse readers who haven’t given the topic much thought.

And there are large internationally connected networks targeting exactly these audiences. To learn more about the ways they do it, how they raise funds for this and what drives them, listen to our interview with Dr Aliaksandr Herasimenka.

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