Misinformation vs. disinformation: a battle for better research and policies

Ryan Calo, Chris Coward, Emma S. Spiro, Kate Starbird, and Jevin D. West wrote a piece for Science Advances journal about the difference between misinformation and disinformation and how understanding the distinction will improve and expand policy-making and research:

The pandemic was planned. Climate change is a hoax. Joe Biden lost the election.

Trying to navigate misinformation about COVID, climate change, politics, and countless other topics can be overwhelming. This is true for the public, researchers, journalists, and policy-makers alike. As researchers dedicated to the study and resistance of misinformation, we often find ourselves in conversation with government officials and others trying to understand and address the phenomenon. To help illuminate the complexities of misinformation and to guide policy, we find three distinctions helpful: misinformation versus disinformation, speech versus action, and mistaken belief versus conviction (Fig. 1). Failing to appreciate these distinctions can lead to unproductive dead ends; understanding them is the first step toward recognizing misinformation and hopefully addressing it.

Everyone goes on about freedom of speech but when it comes to harmful propaganda (and there’s been a lot in the last few years), who is really free and who is really trapped in that cacophony of hate? Misinformation plays a significant role in COVID-19 vaccination rates—it could be a lot higher if not for rumours and incorrect reports about what’s in them. There are, of course, other factors such as distrust amongst Black populations due to systemic racism in science and medicine, but little has been done to combat that.

The final key distinction relates to the nature of belief itself, specifically, the difference between a mistaken belief and a conviction. We recognize that the distinction between belief and behavior is a subject of enduring interest in the social sciences. Indeed, one of our team’s primary research questions examines how exposure to misinformation translates into both belief and behavior. Yet, the distinction between beliefs held out of mistake and beliefs held out of conviction remains undertheorized in both the research literature and within policy circles.

Vaccine hesitation offers a strong example of this distinction (45). Misinformation abounds, but we know that some people sincerely believe that vaccines are more harmful than helpful and oppose them on this basis. At the same time, it is possible that misinformation spread during the COVID-19 pandemic, like many of the claims in the Plandemic video, could recruit people that are not necessarily dogmatic in their views of vaccines initially but instead convinced by the falsehoods and persuasive storytelling.

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