A New Way to Understand our Collective Information Disorder

It’s hard to deny that we have a collective challenge with misinformation in our culture. Trust in the media is at an all-time low, and the charges of “fake news” from all corners are daily fodder on social platforms. Apple this year called for a “massive campaign” to deal with the problem; Facebook publicly pledged to address the issue; the U.S. Congress is hearing evidence of millions of foreign-backed ads and content aimed at recent elections. Now, a new report takes this highly complex social issue offers a simplified approach to understand the origin, intent and impact of news.

“Fraudulent news poses new challenges in today’s digital society,” writes Rande Price in Digital Content Next. “As such, there is a need for best practices and practical solutions to repair tainted digital information streams. In an effort to develop effective solutions and remedy the information disorder, the Council of Europe commissioned research to delve into the digital information and communication process.”

That report, “Information Disorder: Toward an interdisciplinary framework for research and policy,” provides an interesting definition of the problem and how to deal with it.

“We’re only at the earliest of stages of understanding their implications,” write the report’s authors, citing recent results on several key votes around the world. But it’s not just about these recent elections, they insist, saying “there has been much discussion of how information disorder is influencing democracies. More concerning, however, are the long-term implications of dis-information campaigns designed specifically to sow mistrust and confusion and to sharpen existing sociocultural divisions using nationalistic, ethnic, racial and religious tensions.”

So where do we begin to address what the report authors call “information pollution”? First, by carefully defining the problem.

“The term ‘fake news’ was intentionally not used in the report,” Price notes. “Instead, three new terms were introduced to better define the reporting and sharing of false and inaccurate information.”

  • Dis-information is false information purposely created to harm a person, a social group, an organization or a country.
  • Mis-information is false information not created with the intention of initiating harm.
  • Mal-information information that is based on reality used to bring harm to a person, a social group, an organization or a country.

Image source: Council of Europe report

These are powerful distinctions. Identifying the type of information means understanding three critical components: the agent, the message and the interpreter.

“Agents are involved in all phases of the information chain from its creation, production to distribution. It’s important to explore and provide context to agents to identify them and their motivation. Discovering who the agent is, and the purpose of the message is an important part of the evaluation to help stop the information disorder process,” Price explains, based on the report’s guidance.

Image source: Council of Europe report

The final piece in this, of course, is the recipient.

“Audiences, individuals or groups, all react to messages in different manners,” Price explains. “Understanding how individuals and groups consume information is critical to understanding the flow of the information. Further, identifying what audiences do with the information, such as commenting, or sharing, are important parts of understanding the intent of the content.”

As we all come to grips with the problem, this kind of guidance will prove invaluable. The entire report is worth a read, especially if you consume news online, from any source.