Warning: This long article may wake you up to a world of half-truths/disinformation. Take the Red Pill or leave it!
Quick quiz: what is the difference between misinformation and disinformation?
If you could rattle off a list of comparisons and explain that ‘mis’-information refers to the intent to mislead, while ‘dis’-information is generally about misinformation that is intentionally spread (especially by organized groups and intelligence agencies), then you can skip reading this article completely!
Meanwhile, for the rest of us, who are too bogged down by countless responsibilities and errands in daily life to care — we only know that ‘fake news’ is the digital buzzword, and we should not believe everything that is thrown at us online or offline.
However, ignorance is no longer bliss: in a world where political, social and economic agendas are at a state of constant digital cold war, we need to take a break once in a while and read the writing on the wall: Any information you come across, relay or accept without due care can lead to trouble, and we cannot rely on others to always keep watch on us.
So, here are some common terms and tactics about information manipulation that we should all be aware of. Use them to navigate your way around work and play online and offline to keep your mind clear when encountering situations that draw you into unknown digital risks. As open disclosure, the terms’ official definitions have been taken from a relatively objective encyclopedia — Wikipedia — for anyone to double-check and cross-reference against other definitions.
Terms and tactics of information manipulation
Misinformation: According to Wikipedia, misinformation is incorrect or misleading information such as rumors not attributed to any particular source, is not verified, but can turn out to be either true or false. Even if later retracted, misinformation can continue to influence actions and collective memory in society. On top of this, misinformation is not intentional or deliberate, but may harbor unconscious agenda that later cause it to grow into disinformation campaigns.
People may be more prone to believe misinformation because humans are emotionally connected to what they are hearing or reading. The role of social media has made information readily available to us at anytime, and it connects vast groups of people along with their information at one time. Advances in technology have impacted the way we communicate information and the way misinformation is spread. Finally, misinformation has impacts on our societies’ ability to receive information which then influences our communities, politics, and medical fields.
Disinformation: This is misinformation at its core, but overriding it is the intent to deceive. Wikipedia notes that disinformation is primarily carried out by government intelligence agencies, but the act has also been used by non-governmental organizations and businesses since time immemorial.
“Front groups are a form of disinformation, as they mislead the public about their true objectives and who their controllers are. Most recently, disinformation has been deliberately spread through social media in the form of “fake news”, disinformation masked as legitimate news articles and meant to mislead readers or viewers. Disinformation may include distribution of forged documents, manuscripts, and photographs, or spreading dangerous rumors and fabricated intelligence. Use of these tactics can lead to blowback, however, causing such unintended consequences such as defamation lawsuits or damage to the dis-informer’s reputation.”
Fake news: Did you know that this term was already in use in the 1890s when ‘sensational’ reports in newspapers were common? Fake news is false or misleading information presented as news in any form — regardless of whether it comes from legitimate sources of reporting or from unofficial eye witnesses or insiders or fabricated ‘informants’.
Fake news often has the aim of damaging the reputation of a person or entity, or making money through advertising revenue. Nevertheless, the term does not have a fixed definition and has been applied broadly to any type of false information. It has also been used by high-profile people to apply to any news unfavorable to them.
Further, fake news can include BOTH disinformation or misinformation, can involve harmful intent and or unintended malicious agenda. It can be generated and propagated by hostile foreign actors, particularly during elections. In some definitions, fake news includes satirical articles misinterpreted as genuine, and articles that employ sensationalist or clickbait headlines that are not supported in the text. Because of this diversity of types of false news, researchers are beginning to favor the term “information disorder” as a more neutral and informative term.
The prevalence of fake news has increased with the recent rise of social media, especially the Facebook News Feed, and this misinformation is gradually seeping into the mainstream media. Several factors have been implicated in the spread of fake news, such as political polarization, post-truth politics, motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and social media algorithms.
Clickbait: Wikipedia defines this daily misinformation menace as “a text or a thumbnail link that is designed to attract attention and to entice users to follow that link and read, view, or listen to the linked piece of online content, being typically deceptive, sensationalized, or otherwise misleading.” A “teaser” aims to exploit the curiosity gap, providing just enough information to make readers of news websites curious, but not enough to satisfy their curiosity without clicking through to the linked content.
Clickbait headlines add an element of dishonesty, using enticements that do not accurately reflect the content being delivered. The “-bait” part of the term makes an analogy with fishing, where a hook is disguised by an enticement (bait), presenting the impression to the fish that it is a desirable thing to swallow.
(Click fraud, however, is a separate form of online misrepresentation which uses a more extreme disconnect between what is being presented in the front side of the link versus what is on the click-through side of the link, also encompassing malicious code.) The term clickbait does not encompass all cases where the user arrives at a destination that is not anticipated from the link that is clicked.
Phishing: This is a malicious type of social engineering where an attacker sends a fraudulent (e.g., spoofed, fake, or otherwise deceptive) message designed to trick a person into revealing sensitive information to the attacker or to deploy malicious software on the victim’s infrastructure like ransomware.
Phishing attacks have become increasingly sophisticated and often transparently mirror the site being targeted, allowing the attacker to observe everything while the victim is navigating the site, and transverse any additional security boundaries with the victim. As of 2020, phishing is now by far the most common type of attack performed by cybercriminals: over twice as many incidents of phishing are recorded than any other type of computer crime.
“The first recorded use of the term “phishing” was in the cracking toolkit AOHell created by Koceilah Rekouche in 1995; however, it is possible that the term was used before this in a print edition of the hacker magazine 2600. The word is a variant of fishing, influenced by phreaking, and alludes to the use of increasingly sophisticated lures to “fish” for users’ sensitive information,” the Wikipedia entry reads.
Attempts to prevent or mitigate the impact of phishing incidents include legislation, user training, public awareness, and technical security measures. Phishing awareness has become important at home and at the work place.
In the context of information security, social engineering is the psychological manipulation of people into performing actions or divulging confidential information. This differs from social engineering within the social sciences, which does not concern the divulging of confidential information. A type of confidence trick for the purpose of information gathering, fraud, or system access, it differs from a traditional “con” in that it is often one of many steps in a more complex fraud scheme. It has also been defined as “any act that influences a person to take an action that may or may not be in their best interests.”
An example of social engineering is the use of the “forgot password” function on most websites that require login. An improperly-secured password-recovery system can be used to grant a malicious attacker full access to a user’s account, while the original user will lose access to the account.
How we can process information safely
Now that we are clearer about the definitions and intentions of the common words flying around everywhere online, what do we do to stay safe when consuming information online and offline? Here are a general set of best practices that not only act as a moral compass, but also as a “bullsh*t sensor” that wakes us up from our hypnotic daily grind to see the world as it is:
- Treat all casual information you see on TV, in news publications and all online websites as only “partly true” until it is verified by both the news makers involved (who could themselves be lying publicly) as well as all stakeholders who could be impacted negatively if the claims in the information were true. Do not forward such casual information to your network of contacts without clearly stating you are just forwarding what you received, and urge others who may rely on this material for decisions, to check the information themselves before taking any action.
- For non-casual information that you need to apply to serious decision-making processes, perform due prudence by cross-checking facts and figures and sources. Make sure you can answer confidently for any disputes arising from your decisions, by quoting solid references to the proof-checked information you used.
- When 99% of every source of information about a particular incident or topic say the same thing, does that make it the truth? Some of the best-engineering lies and disinformation movements are that good. Once you know this reality of the world, you should make efforts to develop a finer sense of critical thinking when consuming information. Do not take “fact-checks” and supposed “supporting statistics” cited upfront as true. Instead, trace the source of all entities in the information to the root: as the saying goes, “everything happens for a reason”: follow the money trail that could have started a whole string of unconscious disinformation campaigns that have turned lies into household fact, and you will reel at how advanced humans have become at manipulating historical accounts.
- With the public’s level of trust in the mainstream social/media in the doldrums, with Elon Musk declaring that Twitter as a major source of unilateral censorship that shaped public opinion illegally, be absolutely clear when you consume information that can lead you into committing online acts of trolling, flaming and criticism that are in turn biased. Closing your mind to opposing opinions and cited proof is a dead-end game where no one will emerge winner, because in the end we may find that both sides of a dispute were being played by “larger forces” orchestrating a disinformation campaign to sow disunity and chaos.
And what if you fall in the category of information lemmings who believe everything they read and selectively turn unverified claims into activism; where their unshakeable beliefs refute all empirical proof, verifiable testimony and voluminous evidential data show the contrary? The unvarnished truth is that YOU MAY WELL BE RIGHT ALL ALONG — because even this famous axiom: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time” — credited to the great Abraham Lincoln — has turned out to be misinformation!