Misinformation, Disinformation, Fake News: Why Do We Care?
Originally posted 2 April 2020
It can be tempting to think that the fear-inducing, hyper-partisan, misleading, and outright false content pervasive today is an exclusively modern problem. Yet for thousands of years, our Jewish and Christian ancestors have taught that deception is as old as humanity itself. In Genesis 3, the serpent manipulates Eve through a series of misleading and half-true statements to eat the forbidden fruit, then makes Adam do the same by offering him the choice through a trusted source. Sound like anything that has crossed your social media feed recently?
As Christians, we are not called to a life of half-truths and deception. We are called to follow a God who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). The Prayer Book also teaches that among our duties to our neighbors is “to be honest and fair in our dealings” and to “speak truth, and not mislead others by our silence.” (pg. 848) Let us therefore examine our own conduct to limit the spread of deceitful information and call upon our leaders to work towards the same.
The rapid expansion of digitalization and online platforms has enabled deceitful content to spread more rapidly and disguise itself more effectively. The nonprofit First Draft News has excellent language describing what information manipulation looks like today:
"The term ‘fake news’ doesn’t begin to cover all of this. Most of this content isn’t even fake; it’s often genuine, used out of context and weaponized by people who know that falsehoods based on a kernel of truth are more likely to be believed and shared. And most of this can’t be described as ‘news’. It’s good old-fashioned rumors, it’s memes, it’s manipulated videos and hyper-targeted ‘dark ads’ and old photos re-shared as new.
At First Draft, we advocate using the terms that are most appropriate for the type of content; whether that’s propaganda, lies, conspiracies, rumors, hoaxes, hyperpartisan content, falsehoods or manipulated media. We also prefer to use the terms disinformation, misinformation or malinformation. Collectively, we call it information disorder."
Table of Contents
- Understanding Information Disorder and Disinformation Campaigns
- On Elections
- What Can I Do?
- Other Things to Consider
- Further Resources
- Resolutions by General Convention and Executive Council
- On the U.S. 2020 Census
- On COVID-19
- On the Dangers of Government-Sponsored Disinformation
- On Vaccines
- On Climate Change
Information Disorder: a term coined by First Draft News to encompass the spectrum of misinformation, malinformation, and disinformation
Some disinformation is entirely false and fabricated, like this “news” article claiming Pope Francis has coronavirus. As this twitter user points out, the domain was registered several years ago in China and suddenly changed a couple of days previously.
Bots can be used to amplify fringe messages to mainstream audiences. Russian trolls, sophisticated bots, and “content polluters” tweet about vaccination and anti-vaccine messages like this one at significantly higher rates than average users. An estimated 25% of climate denial tweets are spread by bots.
One particular example of concern involves Russian intelligence services using paid advertisements during the 2016 U.S. election that sent different audiences different targeted messages. While national governments have long-used misinformation against enemies, social media has fundamentally changed the scope and reach of these campaigns. The goal of the ads was to widen existing divisions in the U.S., not simply to promote contradictory messages. Notable use of inflammatory language and images and deliberately-misleading names of Facebook pages contributed to the confusion—nothing shows these ads were paid for by foreign actors.
Understanding Information Disorder and Disinformation Campaigns
Roughly 4 in 10 Americans say they often come across made-up news and information. Although the emerging field of social cybersecurity is just now starting to gauge how information disorder affects individuals and society, we have a fairly good understanding of how manipulated information is spread.
Disinformation campaigns are deliberately crafted to spread false or misleading information. However, it may not be the case that the campaign message itself is the actual goal. A common tactic is to first identify two pro/con groups on a divisive issue (abortion, vaccinations, climate change, and political ideology are prime examples). An effective disinformation campaign would infiltrate both sides, backing group leaders, and helping to develop echo chamber qualities in the group. In echo chambers, group members sideline outside information, pass internal information extremely quickly, and make decisions based on emotion and “what everyone knows.” Campaigns use this emotion-based decision-making to incite feelings like dismay or excitement in both groups, then pit the two sides against each other. Ultimately, both suffer from a lack of cross-issue communication and lose even more trust in “the other,” in short, enlarging the divide between the two sides.
Researchers are extremely concerned that disinformation campaigns undermine democratic processes by fostering doubt and destabilizing the common ground that democratic societies require. “[It’s like] listening to static through headphones,” says Dr. Kate Starbird, professor at the University of Washington. “It is designed to overwhelm our capacity to make sense of information, to push us into thinking that the healthiest response is to disengage. And we may have trouble seeing the problem when content aligns with our political identities.”
Elections and politics have always involved disinformation and manipulation. Often, a politician’s ability to effectively use and counter such strategies is a mark of political competency. Consider Odysseus, “the man of twists and turns,” whose cleverness and trickery was praised by men and gods in the Greek epics The Iliad and The Odyssey. Yet democratic societies rely on fair and free elections to ensure that government derives its authority from the will of the people. Disinformation campaigns aimed at voters undermine the ability of a country to hold fair and free elections. There are number of tactics used for this goal.
Microtargeting of communities is particularly concerning: how can an election be fair if one community receives highly targeted, misleading messages urging them to vote for or against a candidate? Or worse, what happens when targeted messages advertise the incorrect time, place, or method of voting to a particular group, like the “Text to Vote for Hillary” ads? Even the threat of such actions undermines confidence in democratic systems.
We now know that for the past few years targeted international digital campaigns in the U.S. and around the world have worked to spread intentionally inaccurate content, undermine faith in election procedures, and widen existing fissures in multiple countries. Yet even U.S. domestic organizations are increasingly using these same disinformation techniques for short-term election or politically-motivated gains. Ultimately, election disinformation pushed by all actors weakens the democratic system.
The Episcopal Church recognizes the process of voting and political participation is an act of Christian stewardship, and that such processes must be fair, secure, and just (see resolutions EC022020.16 and 2018-D096). Since misinformation threatens this process, The Episcopal Church calls upon all its members to be vigilant when engaging with online information and encourages the use of fact-checking and source identification to limit misinformation’s spread. Further, we urge Episcopalians to hold government officials accountable for limiting the spread of information that is false and designed to cause harm.
What Can I Do?
Misinformation often spreads faster than real news and reaches a wider audience. It’s also becoming increasingly difficult to identify. The first step in addressing misinformation is acknowledgement: all of us contribute to the problem, and we must all take ownership to stop it. As long as misinformation remains an issue for “the other” to solve—Gen Z, Boomers, Facebook, Millennials, in-laws—it will persist.
We won’t catch all the misinformation streaming past us. But before you re-share that tweet, or tell a friend about that surprising headline you saw, ask yourself three questions:
- Where’s it from? Look for the source and be careful of fake copycat websites.
- What’s missing? Do the headline and article match? Are other news organizations talking about it?
- How do you feel? If a headline or article sparks an intense emotion like fear, anger, or vindication, be watchful. That’s a common tactic from someone trying to manipulate you, not from someone trying to spread reputable news.
Other things to consider:
- Learn who to trust. An unfortunate consequence of disinformation vigilance can be censorship through noise. If vigilance leads us to distrust every headline, then those promoting disinformation are succeeding. This means we are less likely to receive information that is accurate and informative. Learning who generally produces accurate information is as important as carefully examining unknown sources.
- Genre matters. It’s not just satirical Onion articles that get shared as a “news.” Be mindful of the differences in presentation, fact-checking protocol, and accountability standards between peer-reviewed research, fact-checked news articles, personal opinion pieces and talk shows, and various forms of satire, propaganda, and gossip.
- One effective way to end disinformation campaigns is to label them. While you might not want to engage with the comment thread debates on social media, consider making a comment or sending a private message to friends and family members when they share a post that you suspect is false or misleading. And be responsive to the same feedback from others!
- Communicate to elected officials that protection from disinformation campaigns is important to you.
- Consider asking your members of Congress to support election security. Bills debated in the 116th Congress include the DETER Act S. 1060, Honest Ads Act S.1356/H.R.2592, and SHIELD Act H.R. 4617.
- Develop a nuanced understanding of the relationship between free speech and disinformation. Consider: Does (or should) the Constitution offer paid commercial or political ads the same free speech protections as individuals? Does freedom of speech also include the freedom to receive information? If so, does disinformation threaten that right? Who (if anyone) should be responsible for tracking/tagging false information? Should there be limits to web anonymity or author disclosure requirements?
If you want to learn more about information disorder, here are some recommendations:
- Understanding Information Disorder – a thorough but very readable examination of the modern information disorder landscape
- The Full Fact Toolkit – How to quickly spot possible misinformation before sharing it. Also includes links to numerous fact-checking websites
- Foreign Interference and the 2020 Election
- Bot Sentinel – Resource that lets you see what topics are trending on suspected bot twitter accounts by day/hour. You can also put in any twitter handle and get a score on whether it looks like a suspected bot account.
- Quizzes to see how well you spot misinformation!
Resolutions by General Convention and Executive Council
- MB 016 – Misinformation and Elections
- EXC062016.07 - Support for Campaign Finance Reform
- Resolution 2018-D096 - Urge Advocacy for Good Governance and Fair Participation
On the U.S. 2020 Census
Every 10 years, the US government undertakes a massive effort to count all individuals living in the country. This count is critically important: it determines representation in Congress, is used to allocate federal funds for the next decade, and provides valuable information for state and local community officials, service providers, and private businesses. Misinformation about the census is easily spread and incredibly damaging. Communities where census misinformation is most rampant are often ones with “hard-to-count” subgroups who have the most to gain from accurate population counts.
Targets of census misinformation often include:
- Data privacy and financial scams. What you need to know: The Census Bureau will never ask for your Social Security number, credit card or bank account numbers, or a financial donation.
- In-person census takers. What you need to know: During the spring and summer of the 2020 Census, in-person census takers will visit homes to follow up with individuals who have not yet responded. All workers carry an ID badge with their photograph, a U.S. Department of Commerce watermark, and an expiration date. If you have questions about their identity, you can call +1-844-330-2020 to speak with a Census Bureau representative.
- Data privacy and protection guarantees. What you need to know: Under Title 13 of the U.S. Code, census data may ONLY be used for statistical purposes. The Census Bureau cannot release any identifiable information about you, your home, or your business, even to law enforcement agencies.
You can learn more about Census Misinformation and how to counter it on the official U.S. Census website. Also, don’t miss the Office of Government Relation’s Census Series and census engagement toolkit!
The uncertainty and fear surrounding COVID-19 create a perfect environment for misinformation about it to spread rapidly and widely, so much so that the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned fighting this disease will also require fighting an “infodemic.” Misinformation topics include the origins of the disease, how it spreads, how to treat it, authorities’ responses, and communities’ actions. Individuals in the U.S. and abroad have already died from following false advice about coronavirus treatment and prevention methods.
Amid this infodemic, the Office of Government Relations urges everyone to obtain and share information about the coronavirus disease directly from the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control, John Hopkins University, or your local health care providers. We know that guidance from these agencies can fluctuate and sometimes change completely. Understand, however, that this is because these agencies are doing their due diligence to provide transparency to the public about this health crisis and to adjust their recommendations as new scientific research comes in.
What is going on with the masks?
Our health care workers directly interacting with many COVID-19 patients have some of the highest risk for catching this disease and are one of the most important groups to keep healthy and at work. Because of this, the limited supply of N95 and surgical masks are being directed towards this group. Other face covers, including homemade ones, are not very good at protecting people from COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, which is why the CDC did not originally recommend the general public wear them. However, these lower grade masks can reduce the spread of COVID-19 from individuals who are already infected. As data came out that many COVID-19 cases were being spread by individuals who did not know they had the disease, the CDC changed its mask recommendation to encourage the general public to wear one. Wearing a cloth mask won’t directly stop you from getting sick, but if you and everyone around you wears one, you are far less likely to spread the disease to one another.
What else should we be doing?
Current health guidelines are mundane but still very important to follow. Best practices recommended by the CDC for everyone currently include:
- Wash your hands often
- Avoid close contact
- Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover while around others
- Cover coughs and sneezes
- Clean and disinfect
For individuals infected with COVID-19, we know that there are various suggestions to alleviate symptoms at home. Look out for treatments with potentially dangerous side effects and remember to track any medication you take, including natural or herbal supplements. If your condition worsens, this information will help your doctor know how to best treat you.
As we fight this global pandemic, let us ensure our actions are limiting the spread of this disease, not increasing the spread of misinformation.
On the Dangers of Government-Sponsored Disinformation
Government-sponsored disinformation campaigns have the power to be damaging to society. Usually, individuals have some say in the amount of social media they consume and which organization they choose to receive news from. But since governments are our law-making bodies with the power and authority to enforce those laws, all of us must pay attention to government-sponsored information campaigns. If these campaigns are used to spread false or misleading information to citizens, especially if the deception is intentional, societal damage begins to accumulate. Here’s how:
1. Erosion of trust.
Government-backed disinformation can erode trust between branches of government, between a government and its citizens, and in the international sphere. Americans, for example, have less trust in the federal government than in state or local government, and they also believe the federal government is less likely to provide fair and accurate information. This lack of trust makes it much harder to coordinate efforts like disaster relief and health care recommendations while also opening the door for other actors with less oversight and accountability to become primary information providers. In democratic societies that rely much more explicitly on a level of trust between elected officials and constituents, erosion of trust can represent a long-term threat to stable government systems.
2. Lack of accountability.
No authority wants to be responsible for a failed initiative, poor disaster response, or other crises where the government is perceived to have managed the situation badly. Disinformation campaigns can allow governments to shift blame to other scapegoats or deny a problem’s existence altogether while avoiding productive action to address the issue.
3. Encourages the spread of more misinformation.
Disinformation campaigns often produce short-term benefits, though the long-term repercussions may ultimately hurt the government sponsoring the campaign. Once one government starts to rely on disinformation, it therefore becomes attractive for other domestic and foreign interests to spearhead their own campaigns either through a “they-do-it why-shouldn’t-I” rationalization or out of a desire to remain competitive in the information sphere of influence.
Vaccines are one of the greatest medical accomplishments in history: extraordinarily safe, incredibly effective, and once past the initial development, often inexpensive to produce. Vaccines have saved millions of lives and protect an even greater number of individuals from life-long debilitating medical conditions that can result from a severe case of an infectious disease. In today’s COVID-19 world, experts predict that life likely will not return to “normal” until a vaccine is developed and can be widely distributed.
An anti-vaccine movement has persisted almost since the invention of vaccines. Following the introduction of the smallpox vaccine in the 1800s, anti-vaccine movements spread across Britain and the United States fueled by a skepticism of science, disapproval and fear of the vaccine method, and an objection to personal liberty infringements when legislation mandated vaccinations. More recently, a fraudulent study published in 1998 purported a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. This paper, and others like it, have contributed to thousands of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children, despite investigations showing data from the study was falsified and the main author failed to disclose a significant financial conflict of interest.
Anti-vaccine misinformation is incredibly pervasive and easy to find in today’s media-rich culture. Platforms give discredited former scientists and doctors, such as the lead author of the fraudulent MMR vaccine study, a way to spread their views to a wide audience with very little oversight or accountability.
It is true that vaccines, like any medication, sometimes result in unexpected side effects. However, serious side effects from standard vaccinations are incredibly rare and far less likely to occur than serious side effects that can develop from contracting an infectious disease. Doctors further limit the likelihood of serious side effects by not vaccinating the small percentage of the population who are at higher risk of experiencing a negative reaction.
Choosing not to vaccinate for a non-medical reason does not just put in the individual in question at risk: it also creates an environment for infectious diseases to spread to those who, for health reasons, cannot get vaccinated and are often at risk for developing more serious symptoms of a disease. Because refusing vaccinations brings significant public health risks to many members of the community, U.S. courts have generally upheld states’ authority to mandate vaccinations, noting that an individual’s right to personal liberty or religious freedom does not supersede a state’s responsibility to safeguard the public. Approximately 1.5 million people die from vaccine-preventable diseases each year. In an effort to protect all its members and our neighbors, The Episcopal Church does not recognize theological or religious exemptions for vaccines and requires vaccinations for all participants and staff at Episcopal events (except for those with a medical exemption). Learn more about engaging faith communities on immunization from The World Faiths Development Dialogue.
If you have questions about vaccines:
- Talk with your primary health care provider. They can explain possible vaccine side effects, possible side effects from catching a disease, and the relative risks of each. Your primary health care provider should also be informed of any pre-existing medical conditions you or your children have.
- Conduct online research from reputable sources, like the Centers for Disease Control. There’s a lot of false, misleading, or incomplete information about vaccinations. Make sure any information you use has been thoroughly vetted by the medical community.
On Climate Change
Disinformation is not the only reason for climate change denial in the U.S., but it is certainly a major contributor. According to climate scientist Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, the 6 stages of climate denial can be summarized as follows: “It's not real. It's not us. It's not that bad. It's too expensive to fix. Aha, here's a great solution (that actually does nothing). And - oh no! Now it's too late. You really should have warned us earlier.”
In 1856, amateur scientist Eunice Foote published a paper in the American Journal of Science about her discovery of the heat-trapping properties of carbon dioxide and theorized that an atmosphere with a higher concentration of CO2 would result in a warmer Earth. A century and a half later, the science has only become more clear: climate change is real, humans are causing it, and solutions must be implemented as quickly as possible. A growing scientific consensus, however, was paralleled by a growing body of climate misinformation funded by the fossil fuel industry and private philanthropy. We should be having conversations about solutions to climate change and what compromises are necessary to implement them. Instead, we continue to debate what is already scientific consensus and strive to correct the errors misinformation propagates.
Political affiliation—not scientific knowledge—is a key predictor of an individual’s belief in climate change in the U.S. This partisan divide, fueled by misinformation, has stalled bipartisan legislation to address climate change for over 20 years. To this day, very little action has been taken at the federal level to decrease the United States’ carbon footprint. Even within the environmental community, climate misinformation persists: an environmental documentary released around Earth Day 2020 received scathing reviews for mixing important questions about the renewable energy sector with an enormous amount of outdated, misleading, and false data.
Climate change is already one of the most difficult crises of our time that we need to address. Let’s not make it more difficult to implement solutions by using misinformation to disguise the problem and derail debates.
To learn more about the science of climate change:
To learn more about climate change solutions:
- Project Drawdown
- Climate Interactive En-ROADS Simulator
- Office of Government Relations Creation Care Resources
- The Episcopal Church Creation Care Ministry
Work on this resource was led by Rebecca Cotton, policy intern, Office of Government Relations