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how to spot online deception

Misinformation vs. Disinformation: How to Spot Online Deception

Anna-Marie Brittain
Reading time: 7 minutes

The fake news storm during the last two presidential election cycles is considered recent history that we must learn from. Especially now that we’re in a new election season, there’s global political upheaval and a landscape of emotionally-charged headlines. When learning how to spot false information, you must understand the main fake news categories; misinformation and disinformation.
Ultimately, spreading misleading information and false news online has real-world consequences. Before the advent of social media, rumors via word-of-mouth spread fast but were limited to the number of people who shared them. A school, neighborhood, or small town might be pulled into that gossip. Today, however, a falsehood made online has the potential to reach broader audiences in mere hours.
Falling prey to deceit or disinformation is preventable. Whether you prefer browsing the web or scrolling through social media, you can develop the skills to spot misleading, inaccurate, or false information. The first step is understanding the differences between misinformation and disinformation.

Misinformation vs disinformation: What is the difference?

disinformation vs misinformation
The American Psychology Association defines misinformation as false or inaccurate information. In other words, it’s misleading information because some facts are wrong. This type of fake news is referred to as unintentional misinformation. Even though the info is incorrect, it was spread innocently. It wasn’t spread to purposely cause upheaval.
Although it’s similar to misinformation, disinformation has some steeper consequences. So, what is disinformation? It’s defined as propagating false information that deliberately misleads readers. Sharing erroneous information knowingly and intentionally misleading or lying to audiences is an act of disinformation. This type of fake news usually has its roots in malicious intent. Disinformation is sometimes purposely shared to sow discontent with intended audiences, people who don’t recognize the signs of disinformation.
It's crucial to understand this distinction. There’s a clear line between sharing something you thought was true without trying to stir up public outrage and spreading fake news, purposefully creating chaos.

Societal impacts: real-world consequences

The proliferation of misleading or false information online is extremely difficult to combat. Online scams and lack of social media safety measures are the tip of the iceberg.
It’s important to recognize and combat misleading and false information. Not only to prevent other people from falling victim to it but also because, in some cases, it has led to unfortunate or violent outcomes. The spread of misinformation exploded as the internet continues to be the primary source for international, domestic, and local news stories. It’s also challenging to ignore fake news when people are constantly bombarded with it.
To gain a deeper understanding of the societal impacts, take a look at these historical events. They all occurred in the last decade and were the result of the dissemination of fake news spread online.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, worsened when misinformation about the vaccine spread. Life-saving treatment and public safety were compromised when fake news caused skepticism and fear.
  • The January 6, 2021, capital riot resulted in scores of people being charged with misdemeanor or felony offenses. This day sparked international attention and caused several deaths due to the violent clash of the rioters.
  • The spread of misinformation and disinformation by radio and podcast host Alex Jones led to a historic indictment. This legal case set the precedent for the need to combat fake news before it continues to have lasting damage on all levels of the geopolitical landscape.

How to spot misinformation

how to spot misinformation
Avoid falling victim to misinformation. Tips for spotting questionable news is by remaining skeptical. Whether the news is coming from an online platform or an acquaintance quoting a headline, it’s always best to receive the information with a grain of salt.
Do your research. Check the source, even from a preferred news site. If the info is from a trusted colleague, where did they get their facts? You may trust them to be experts in their field, but when that shared information is beyond their expertise, it’s not a bad idea to look for more factually supported information on the subject before sharing the misinformation yourself.
Half-truths, partial facts, and reason mixed with nonsensical information reach large audiences, especially when presented as entertainment. A technical method might include glancing at the HTML address and analyzing the URL. Does it have HTTPS in it? The S ensures the website is secure. Checking the web address for this simple letter is also recommended before users enter personal information.
Professionals with an eye for spotting false news share simple methods that enable readers to do the same. For instance, psychologists’ research continues to combat the spread of misinformation involving COVID. Educators focus on teaching media literacy to stem the flow and prevent the spread of fake news.

Misinformation on social media

Social media safety is a challenging topic. The state of public communication is always in flux. Especially as younger generations turn away from traditional nightly news highlights. Instead, information reaches various social media platforms. Further analysis of social media found that the “fear of exclusion” made it more likely for people to share fake news online.
TikTok, for example, isn’t only for entertainment. Every user gets an opportunity to be seen and have their voices heard. Regardless of what users are saying, doing, or promoting, the more attention they get, the more influence they have. Whether you scroll past or react to posts, remember to consider the social media influencer and how they gathered their information. Asking questions after reading, listening, or viewing newsreels is all part of improving one’s comprehension skills.
If you’re worried about family or friends spreading misinformation, approach them with questions. For example, Do they need medical advice? Would they listen to a social media influencer or ask a doctor? Do they want to learn about climate change? Would they listen to a TikToker or ask a meteorologist? Remember, viral claims and online rumors spread fast. It’s a good habit to develop an inquisitive mind and question the authenticity of the claim or rumor.

How to spot fake news

how to spot fake news
The spread of false information and fake news might be less of a problem if it stayed where it was, online. What got the media's attention is people believed this fabricated news and reacted to it. U.S. gun violence, for instance, remains a national headline due to the constant barrage of mass shootings. Data shows approximately one mass shooting per day since the new year began. Efforts to debunk the myths perpetuated by gun lobbyists continue.
Knowing how to spot falsehoods online and on social media will make it easier to avoid scams and stop the spread of lies. Ask yourself, does the headline sound absurd? Social media has paved the way for comedy and social commentary to overlap. If the “news” story or update sounds funny, check to see if it’s meant as a facetious joke.
Questions you should be posing when scrolling through news articles and online videos are:
  • Who is the author/anchor/speaker/actor? Today, podcast hosts accused of spreading fake news are facing legal repercussions. Writers, news anchors, guest “expert” speakers, and even politicians are facing controversy for sharing or perpetuating misinformation.
  • Who is the publisher? Find out who is funding or profiting from the spread of this information. It’s not unheard of for businesses, like social media companies, to allow the spread of falsehoods for the sake of profits.
  • Is this current information? Checking the dates is always important. No one wants to accidentally share an old news story about an impending winter storm. Crime stories unfold in different ways, particularly when it's an ongoing investigation. Check for updated sources before sharing.
  • Is it a deepfake video? Is it a fake audio recording? Advancing AI continues to astonish audiences. Deepfake videos make it hard to distinguish if it’s real. There's a similar shock from fake audio recordings.

An unpredictable landscape: The influences of fake news

With the advent of social media, like Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitch, it's no surprise that any information posted can spread like wildfire. Studies show that fake news on Twitter gets shared more often and spreads faster than factual stories.
False news or disinformation leads to a polarized community where some people base their opinions and beliefs on falsehoods. The spread of fake news has deepened public distrust of the media. Research is even showing the connection between misinformation and racism in crime stories.
Disinformation campaigns have led to discrediting experts, such as medical professionals and scientists that were busy educating the populace on the health effects of COVID-19. Podcast host Joe Rogan is facing controversy for his false news about COVID. It has some doctors outraged. The spread of disinformation is also highlighted as a factor in the January 6, 2021, capital riots. The repercussions for that include over one thousand people getting charged.


Taking preventative measures is the best way to combat misinformation and false news. That means learning how to spot untrustworthy information using effective source evaluation methods. If you’re worried about deepfakes, we can help you learn what a deepfake is and how to spot one. Gaining a better understanding of disinformation and how to steer clear is a must.
Whether you’re a cybersecurity enthusiast or interested in AI and ChatGPT, learning to separate fact from fiction will make engaging with the tech-savvy future a stress-free process.

About the Author

Anna-Marie Brittain is a contributing writer for HP Tech Takes. Her experience includes writing for small businesses and non-profit organizations. She creates content for various niches including emerging technologies, law, health, and nutrition.

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