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Misinformation, Disinformation, and Mal-information

This week I had the opportunity to attend a fantastic workshop about analyzing social media data. In one of our discussions, the topic of misinformation, disinformation, and mal-information came up.

It’s a little different in the context of research, but I started thinking about the role all three play in true crime stories–and who the most common culprits are.

Let’s start with some definitions.


Misinformation is data that is false, but it wasn’t created or shared to cause harm.

Raina, eager to make her deadline for the 5:00 broadcast, gets an early copy of the police report from a trusted source working on the investigation. She reports that the home was broken into, citing a damaged door and broken glass on the patio as evidence. Later she learns that the damage was actually caused by a storm the night before, but she has already reported the incorrect information.


Disinformation is almost the opposite of misinformation–if you consider intent as the most important factor in the definition. Like misinformation, the data is still false, but it was created to harm a person, social group, organization, or country.

Maggie had a bad feeling about the idea, but she went along with her brother’s suggestion to lie to the school principal. She said that she saw her ex-husband’s car outside their daughter’s school on days when he didn’t have permission to be there under their current arrangement. Her brother said the report would strengthen her case when she tried for full custody. Plus, the claims would be his word against hers, so she could damage his reputation and increase the chances she’d win her case.


Mal-information is actually based on reality, but it is misrepresented (taken out of context, for example) to mislead others or cause harm.

Needing to boost engagement, Eddie posted an old photo of a local celebrity that showed him drinking at a local nightclub. This person had just celebrated a year of sobriety publicly, and the article would ultimately congratulate him on his progress. But the photo, in conjunction with the title, “Drinking again?” would lead people to believe that he had fallen off the wagon. Most importantly to Eddie, they’d click on the article to read more. He wasn’t worried about how the celebrity would feel; after all, it wouldn’t do any harm since it wasn’t true.

Who are the most common perpetrators?

I tried to think about the various cases where I had seen all three instances. I immediately thought of the media reporting on crime and the families of victims when I considered misinformation. The media moving quickly and families moving in a state of fear and shock seemed most likely to misunderstand and share incorrect information.

Disinformation is a little trickier because that involves the intent to deceive. Who would be actively trying to deceive others by sharing incorrect information? My first thought was lawyers (and I’d like to apologize to all of my friends who are lawyers for that reaction). But I realized that they are held to a high standard and, if caught deliberately lying, would risk severe sanctions. I think lawyers (especially defense lawyers) are more likely to encourage people to be open to possibilities, which could be misconstrued as deceptive.

But what about criminals pointing and trying to make someone else look guilty? Could that be because I’m reading about Pam Hupp in Bone Deep right now?

And last but not least, I had to consider mal-information. My first thought was politics–not a person, campaign, or party. Just politics in general. In an investigation or a courtroom, eventually, mal-information will be clarified by someone with an opposing goal, so it is risky to introduce. But if you’re trying to persuade large groups of people (like voters) of something that is technically true and yet actually false, mal-information has proven to be very effective.

Do the definitions matter?

If you find yourself having shared incorrect information, does it matter why? It does to me. I’d either feel embarrassed at my mistake or ashamed for making a decision that would harm others. Those are two very different feelings.

But if you learn someone has shared incorrect information about you, does it matter why? I think about people who are wrongfully accused of a crime and eventually proven innocent (always with less publicity than when they were accused, it seems). I wonder if they consider intent when they look back to the source of incorrect information that damaged their reputation, possibly risking their life and liberty in the process. Would it matter to you?

Resources for Citizen Investigators & Internet Sleuths

Resources for this topic look a little different. I recommend checking out a few articles about how people define misinformation. The Society for Professional Journalists also has excellent information. But I hope you’ll also think about cases that you know well and what information at any point in the investigation was incorrect. Do you know how it got there? And, maybe most importantly, did you contribute (even in a small way) to spreading incorrect information?

I’d love to hear the examples that came to mind! Please drop them in the comments!

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