Misinformation and Disinformation

Since our founding in 2014, the Alliance for Science has striven to correct misinformation and disinformation in regard to agricultural biotechnology. A September 2020 reinvestment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has allowed us to widen our focus to counter conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns that hinder progress in climate change, synthetic biology, agricultural innovations, and other key issues.

Mis and dis: What’s the difference?

In short, misinformation refers to the spreading of falsehoods, regardless of intent. Often, misinformation is shared inadvertently and without nefarious intent. An example of this might be a concerned parent who sees a social media post claiming that vaccines cause autism and then becomes alarmed and shares that disproven theory with her friends and family. They have not done so with the explicit goal of misleading or confusing their network, but the misinformation nonetheless often spreads further and then takes on a life of its own.

Disinformation is the deliberate spreading of things the sharer knows to not be true. This could be false, biased, or misleading information or part of a coordinated propaganda campaign. The person knows what that what they are sharing is false but does it anyway, often to further their own agenda.

As Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at the University of Syracuse who specializes in media literacy, said in an AfS Live! session on conspiracy theories in the age of COVID, the line between misinformation and disinformation is often blurred.

“Just because it started as one thing, doesn’t mean it can’t turn into another depending on who shared it and why,” said Phillips, who prefers the term “polluted information.”

Coronavirus misinformation: AfS research on the ‘infodemic’

In September 2020, the Alliance for Science’s Sarah Evangena and Mark Lynas, along with Jordan Adams and Karinne Smolenyak of Cision Global Insights, released a study on the COVID-19 “infodemic.” The study identified and analyzed the most prominent topics of COVID-related misinformation that emerged in traditional media between Jan. 1 and May 26, 2020 based on a total sample of over 38 million articles published in English-language media around the world. To our knowledge, this analysis was the first comprehensive survey of the traditional and online media landscape on this issue. The results were clear: the President of the United States was likely the largest driver of the COVID-19 misinformation “infodemic.”

The full study can be read here while a summarized and illustrated version is here.  A press release on the study is here. The New York Times also reported on the study.