Culture and Society

What is disinformation?
Answered by Meredith Bower
  •  Meredith Bower

    Meredith Bower

  1. In a world where anyone can add information (accurate or not) to Wikipedia, manipulate a photo using Photoshop or "tweet" a bit of false information from a cell phone, it's easy to see why you can't believe everything you read.

    Misinformation has always been a problem for human beings. It occurs when a person or organization spreads false information, but the intention is not to deceive or cause harm. For example, a well-meaning college student may edit the Wikipedia page for great white sharks to say that all sharks are mammals rather than fish. He's wrong -- actually he's confusing this "fact" about sharks with a fact he heard about dolphins. This transfer of false knowledge would be an example of misinformation, since the inaccurate information is not spread with deceptive intent. It's just a mistake.

    Disinformation, on the other hand, is the intentional spreading of false information to change an outcome or perception. Among government agencies worldwide, disinformation is one of the oldest tricks in the book.

    Disinformation has been an effective weapon against other nations in wartime. World War II is filled with stories of disinformation, such as Britain's daring and now-famous Operation Mincemeat. The Brits' elaborate plan involved planting false information, cleverly disguised as part of a highly classified communiqué, on the body of a deceased soldier and dumping him into the sea off the coast of Spain. The Spanish recovered the body and "top secret" documents, which suggested that even though it appeared that the Allies were planning to attack Sicily, in fact, they were planning to attack Greece instead. While the Allies' plan was still to invade Sicily, the disinformation was especially effective because it implied that Sicily was merely a "decoy" target designed to distract Axis leaders from the true goal of Greece. Axis sympathizers in the Spanish government passed the false information along to the Germans, who took the bait and shifted their defensive strategy based on what they believed was the truth [source: Macintyre].

    While disinformation has been an effective tool against foreign enemies, governments also use it to deceive their own citizens -- a strategy that often has negative side effects [source: Institute for Historical Review]. Propaganda and disinformation lead to mistrust and, in some cases, paranoia. There are dedicated conspiracy theorists who tend to believe almost any "official story" is actually an act of deception and disinformation. Give such a person an extraordinary event, from the strange lights in the skies over Roswell, N.M., to the September 11 attacks, and they will be convinced that a cover-up is taking place.

    More answers from Meredith Bower »

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