What’s the Difference? Is It Fake News or Misinformation?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Most people are concerned about how much information that is “out there” isn’t true. And UPenn found that “misinformation works much more easily than the efforts to undo it. Their data revealed that misinformation is almost always accepted as fact — a staggering 99.6% of the time — whereas attempts to correct it succeed only in only 83% of cases.” (UPenn, Misinformation, Misconceptions, and Conspiracy Theories in Communication)

The negative impacts of misinformation are spreading as time goes on. The United Nations Development Programme describes the problem as “information pollution” which seems to capture its insidious nature and lasting effects.

Information pollution is affecting the citizens’ capacity to make informed decisions. Disinformation, misinformation, and mal-information together with the growth of hate speech and propaganda, especially online, are inciting social divisions and creating mistrust in public institutions.

UNDP, RISE ABOVE: Countering misinformation and disinformation in the crisis setting

While there may not be complete agreement on terminology, UNDP has a collection of helpful definitions that describe the differences:

DISINFORMATION – Information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization or country.
MISINFORMATION – Information that is false, but not created with the intention of causing harm.
MALINFORMATION – Information that is based on real facts, but manipulated to inflict harm on a person, organization or country.

UNDP, RISE ABOVE: Countering misinformation and disinformation in the crisis setting

UPenn describes “fake news” as a type of misinformation, and extrapolating from the UNDP definitions above, it seems to me that “fake news” could also be used as disinformation or malinformation (depending on the motive).

While it may come in different forms, be called by different names, or be shared in different ways, the negative impact of false information is deep and lasting. In an age when anything can go viral in minutes, sharing false information can have great unintended consequences even if the motive is only to share it “as a joke.” For that reason, it is unethical to share false information with others, regardless of the motive. Learn how to spot what UNDP calls “information pollution” before you share.

Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership


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