Unpacking the Trilogy of Information Distortion — Misinformation, Disinformation and Mal-information

Kwami Ahiabenu ll
4 min readJul 27, 2023

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Information is power; information distortion is equally powerful as it can serve whatever agenda its purveyors set to accomplish, such as promoting a political cause, principles, point of view or way of life. Information distortion is not a new phenomenon, nevertheless, the advancement in digital technologies is giving oxygen to enable it spread like bushfire worldwide.

Digital technology is a double edge sword, it can counter information distortion at the same time, profoundly enable information modification and distortion. An example is using Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms to fully or partially generate video, image, text or voice, collectively called synthetic media. Examples of synthetic media are: “deep fakes, ” generating an image or video in a person’s likeness as part of information distortion and ‘Speech synthesis “, producing distorted human speech where a speech is created and attributed to someone who never said those words.

The combination of misinformation, disinformation and mal-information are the anchors that enable actors to alter information, omit salient elements of information, or re-organize information than it was initially communicated, deliberately or unintentionally.

The impact can be long-lasting on mass media, public institutions and officials, as it can erode trust and damage reputations. Further, it can create or exacerbate violence, promote hate speech, spread fear and suspicion, polarize public opinion, impact peace and security adversely, and undermine democracy.

Information distortion and manipulation are now established as a critical problem manifesting as revenge porn, fake news, hoaxes, fabricated content, manipulated content, imposter content, misleading content, false context, satire and parody, false connections, and propaganda.

Although disinformation, misinformation, and mal-information are related, they are distinct as a concept. Misinformation is incorrect or misleading information that spreads unintentionally without any agenda. Usually, they are not attributable to any particular source, often, they are unreliable and difficult to verify, and after verification, they can either be false or true. Misinformation can occur in various ways, including people sharing stories without verification, insults, rumors and pranks.

On the other hand, disinformation is deliberate deceptive information spread to mislead people with ill motives and to cause harm, such as hoaxes, spear phishing and propaganda.

Misinformation and disinformation share a common characteristic, that is, they are all based on false information, nevertheless, the point of departure is misinformation is not intended to cause harm, whereas disinformation is designed to cause harm.

Mal-information is based on factual information, however, this information is distorted through a change of context, such as time, space or privacy, to cause harm. Mal-information can be spread deliberately or unintentionally, usually on social media, online platforms, emails and messaging tools such as WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal.

Perpetrators of information distortion could include individuals, political actors, especially political parties and politicians, governments in their home country or other countries, private organizations and other entities. Malign authoritarian regimes are increasingly making use of disinformation to undermine democracy, among other agenda. Political parties and candidates now rely on disinformation and misinformation to win political power during elections. Groups such as Violence Extreme Organizations (VEOs) are getting sophisticated in their recruitment drive, using digital tools combined with disinformation to rally support for their causes. Some commercial entities and businesses also use misinformation to compete, especially in fiercely competitive markets. There is also a lot of information distortion in the health sector, and matters came to a head during the COVID pandemic, which recorded a lot of incidences of misinformation, especially regarding the effectiveness of COVID vaccination.

Tackling information distortion is a challenging job. Though there are mechanisms such as Media and information literacy, fact-checking, and creating new policies, regulations and laws to deal with this menace, they are producing mixed results.

Media literacy is an essential tool in the fight against information distortion because citizens are empowered to assess the information critically, thereby being able to discern between trustworthy information and those that are not.

Some governments worldwide are working to set up laws, policies and regulations to deal with information distortion; however, legislating measures to counter information distortion is complex and problematic due to limited resources.

Fact-checking is verifying the factual accuracy of published content using reliable sources to correct false information in the public domain. Fact-checking aims to ensure that the public is provided with reliable, trusted and accurate information. Fact-checking can occur before content is published (ante-hoc) or after the content is published (post hoc). Most fact-checking is post hoc, coupled with time-consuming and complex fact-checking procedures means it cannot match the intensity and speed at which distorted information is disseminated, this situation sometimes renders fact-checking ineffective.

Challenges such as inadequate technology, human capital and information resources mitigate against the goal of timely fact-checking and distributing the outcome of fact-checking processes. Fundamental problems fact-checkers face includes how to timeously determine what constitutes distorted information, especially on social media due to the high content volume. Further fact-checkers cannot interface with messaging platforms, which are private and based on end-to-end encrypted communication making access to such content difficult for verification. However, fact-checking remains crucial for countering disinformation, misinformation, and mal-information.

To conclude, winning the war against information distortion is challenging; however, investing in a better understanding of this phenomenon, undertaking media and digital media literacy drive, enhancing fact-checking systems, and enacting and enforcing laws can help combat it; otherwise, its dire consequences will continually stain every fabric of our society.

Kwami Ahiabenu, II (Ph.D.) is a Technology Innovations Consultant

First published by https://myjoyonline.com/unpacking-the-trilogy-of-information-distortion-misinformation-disinformation-and-mal-information

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