This year can be characterized by a lot of themes and events, but Dictionary.com had to choose one word to represent 2018, and that’s misinformation.
Misinformation, defined by the dictionary as “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead,” is unfortunately all too influential in modern society. In its announcement, Dictionary.com said the “rampant spread of misinformation poses new challenges for navigating life in 2018.”
As a dictionary, we believe understanding the concept is vital to identifying misinformation in the wild, and ultimately curbing its impact.
But what does misinformation mean? Dictionary.com defines it as “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.” The recent explosion of misinformation and the growing vocabulary we use to understand it have come up again and again in the work of our lexicographers.
Over the last couple of years, Dictionary.com has been defining words and updating terms related to the evolving understanding of misinformation including disinformation, echo chamber, confirmation bias, filter bubble, conspiracy theory, fake news, post-fact, post-truth, homophily, influencer, and gatekeeper.
Importantly, the dictionary’s statement drew a distinction between misinformation – or falsehoods – and disinformation, which is usually defined by an intent to deceive.
The meaning of misinformation is often conflated with that of disinformation.
However, the two are not interchangeable. Disinformation means “deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda.”
So, the difference between misinformation and disinformation comes down to intent.
When people spread misinformation, they often believe the information they are sharing. In contrast, disinformation is crafted and disseminated with the intent to mislead others. Further confusing the issue is the fact that a piece of disinformation can ultimately become misinformation. It all depends on who’s sharing it and why. For example, if a politician strategically spreads information that they know to be false in the form of articles, photos, memes, etc., that’s disinformation. When an individual sees this disinformation, believes it, and then shares it, that’s misinformation.
The differences are notable, but misinformation and disinformation are both important in 2018, and they will be important for the foreseeable future. At a time when politicians are increasingly relying upon false narratives and twisted interpretations of facts, it’s crucial that Americans understand these words, as well as their implications.
So, thank you dictionary.com for helping to raise awareness about the spread of misinformation. That’s the first step toward stopping it.