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Getting to know the terms

Hailey Mooney from the University of Michigan defines the terms “disinformation,” “misinformation,” and “fake news” in this segment of the Teach-Out.
<v ->Disinformation is a term that talks</v> about intentionally-false information that’s being spread. So this is a little bit different than say misinformation, which has unintentionally-false information. So when you’re talking about mis versus disinformation, you’re talking about the intentionality of the author. Are they going to want to be spreading this false information, or when they find out that the information was false, do they make a good faith effort to correct it? Mis and disinformation are really part of a larger ecosystem of junk information, information pollution. What would generally lump under the heading these days of being called fake news. So there are actually lots of different typologies and definitions of fake news out there.
I’ll share with you a little bit of my take on it. Now, if you put aside satire as a type of fake news,
which would be like the Daily Show or something like that, or Weekend Update on SNL, fake news definitions generally fall into sort of two categories, which would be problematic content or critique of mainstream media. And I like to think of this as fake news being a deception that is intended to influence for someone else’s gain. So this deception could be through the false or misleading content, an article in itself, or it can also be a rhetorical device that someone uses your fake news. And there’s a gain there, often it’s a financial gain, and it might also be paired with a sociopolitical gain that someone’s looking to have as well.
So this would be generally thinking of wanting you to vote for a particular candidate or subscribe to a particular ideology. But it could also be at a smaller level, somebody just wants to get a laugh out of how gullible you are. So I’m gonna run through a few more specific examples of how fake news sort of shakes out what it can be. So if you’re looking at fake news as problematic content with intent to sell something or make money, this is like your traditional snake oil salesmen sort of thing. In the 2016 election, we saw this with those fabulous news stories like Pope endorses Trump. There were a number of those types of stories, Pizzagate, that kind of thing.
A lot of these were really about exploiting the business model of the internet by which page views gets you advertising dollars. So they just wanted you to come to site, get as many hits as they could, so they could get as much advertising revenue as they could. It was really about making money for a lot of people who put out those types of stories. Now, another type of fake news as problematic content would be content that’s sponsored and orchestrated by an undisclosed entity appearing in an otherwise legitimate news source.
So one example of this, again, back at the 2016 election, that sort of fits into this category, would be like the Russian propaganda that we saw on social media, where they would pose as some types of grassroots organization and try and get you to come to a rally, and then also then have the other side of the issue, so they’re trying to get people to come out and just be polarized. They’re trying to promote that polarization. So that’s sort of like a turf grass sort of movement thing.
You also see this in the more mainstream media, and this gets into fake news as critique of mainstream media when a news organization might run a press release as straight news without disclosing the source of that information, that it actually came from a lobbying group or a corporation or something, that they pulled that right from the press release. So fake news then, as a rhetorical device, would be a creation of narratives that are designed to deal with and annihilate opposition. This is really how we see Trump use the term fake news when he tells people that they’re fake news or that that organization is just fake news.
A more historical example would be with McCarthyism where the term communism became synonymous with anti-Americanism. So fake news can also be talking about very ideological or partisan news sources promoting opinions over facts. This might be something like Breitbart or Alex Jones, or even something like Huffington Post on the left. But you also get here into fake news as critique of mainstream media where you have critiques of Fox News or MSNBC that they’re catering to a very specific ideological audience.
And this takes me then into the very general critique of mainstream media as fake news, that they really rely on news reporting practices of selective representation and framing, they reinforce elite narratives and power structures, particularly through reliance, for example, on official sources and keeping out more everyday voices. This is the critique that we hear on both the right and the left, although lately we tend to think of it as more critique from the right when we hear people decrying the liberal media, but there’s actually that tradition of critique on the left as well.
For example, if you look at Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 book on Manufacturing Consent, and a recent update on that sort of idea came from Matt Taibbi with his 2019 book on Hate Inc, which sort of marries the critique of manufacturing consent with the shift that we’ve been seeing to the more partisan ideological news sources. So big ecosystem of fake news, junk information of which disinformation, just one very specific type of patently false information that we have to look out for.

Disinformation, misinformation, and fake news

Many of us have heard these terms mentioned by our family, friends, politicians, or the media. In this step, Hailey Mooney, Librarian for Psychology & Sociology at the University of Michigan, explains the terms “disinformation,” “misinformation,” and “fake news,” and explains how they serve different roles in shaping national and international narratives in our society.

For further information about these terms, visit the National Endowment for Democracy’s website Distinguishing Disinformation from Propaganda, Misinformation, and “Fake News” and explore the University of Michigan’s Library Guide “What is “Fake News”?, co-authored by Hailey Mooney and Jo Angela Oerhli, two of our guest experts in this Teach-Out.

Discussion: Where have you seen examples of disinformation, misinformation, or fake news in your own life? What did you learn from this segment and the associated guides?

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