The term ‘fake news’ is still common parlance in the press and politics, despite good reasons to stop using it.
Why we don't use the F-word
On the one hand it is frequently used by Donald Trump and fellow populists to discredit the press, stoke mistrust and polarise voters. But this is by no means limited to populists. Politicians across the spectrum make use of the phrase to belittle political opponents and their views. On the other hand the term is a misnomer. While fake news are fabricated with the intent of causing harm, the phrase is often applied to misinformation and in contexts outside of news media. Disinformation goes beyond news media and is a complex problem. Thus, it’s important to distinguish the various forms of it with precise language.
Disinformation is intended to cause harm, often in immaterial ways. For instance, to damage a person’s credibility or the deliberate spread of false information regarding political actors or public health. There are forms of disinformation created for financial motives, such as deliberately false, sensationalized headlines and videos, which generate ad revenue for host websites.
The creation of disinformation is a varied process, which can include the deliberate misuse of context, fabrication of content or the misconstruction of existing information. Imposter content describes manipulated or falsified content published with hallmarks of legitimacy, such as the logo of an established news organization or the misattribution of quotes.
Disinformation is not a criminal offense per se, but can be, a distinction which is in the purview of courts.
In contrast to disinformation, misinformation is not created with the intent to cause harm. It often stems from the unintentional – but nonetheless false – use of context and is often misleading without malice. In the best case, when people share misinformation they will apologize and issue a correction. Journalists are not immune to spreading disinformation. Misinformation can find its way into news media, often due to insufficient research or a careless review of sources. An indicator of good journalism is whether corrections are issued in such cases.
Malinformation - the weaponization of information
The third category describes the deliberate publication of true information to cause harm. This includes, but is not limited to, leaks of sensitive documents, personal contact data or private pictures. For instance, screenshots of private messaging chats can be used as malformation to publicly discredit a political opponent. Generally speaking, the publication of personal data without consent is illegal. In many cases, libel and hate speech are also criminal offenses.