Q&A: Misinformation or disinformation

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, there’s a lot of misinformation out there right now…

Q: Hi AWC, can we discuss something that has been spreading everywhere in 2020?

A: Um, sure. But haven’t we already talked about pandemics?

Q: No, not that. I’m talking about the difference between “misinformation” and “disinformation”. Are they both real words?

A: Ahhh. Yes, they are both words. Macquarie Dictionary lists both as “false or misleading information”, however it only lists “misinform” (not “disinform”) as a verb.

Q: Well let’s stick to the nouns then. Why two words for the same thing? Surely the prefixes “dis–” and “mis–” mean different things?

A: Well, sometimes. You see, both prefixes hold down a lot of part time jobs. In the case of “dis–”, it’s often used in the sense of being ‘opposite’ or ‘an absence/not’ something. Examples include “disease”, “disappear” or “distasteful”.

Q: Or “disaster”? Haha. Get rid of all that aster…

A: Well, you may laugh, but yes, it actually comes from Italian “disastro” – with ‘astro’ relating to the stars. So “ill-starred” in the sense of something bad is completely in line with what we’re talking about.

Q: You’d be fun at parties.

A: Just doing our job.

Q: Okay, so what about “mis–”?

A: This is where English gets annoying again.

Q: Again? It never stopped.

A: Well, okay. You see, “mis–” can ALSO mean ‘opposite’ or ‘not’ – such as in “mistrust”, “mismanagement” or “misknow”. But importantly, it’s usually more likely linked to something being ‘wrong’. Examples of this include “misdeeds”, “mishandle” or “misbehaviour”.

Q: Miss Universe? That was pretty wrong.

A: Ignoring that. And anyway, despite all this, then you get words that use both prefixes and are practically synonymous – such as “mistrust” and “distrust”.

Q: And “misinformation” and “disinformation”.

A: Exactly.

Q: But there must be some differences with these two?

A: There actually are. Their age for starters. “Misinformation” popped up in the 1580s – as the simple act of misinforming someone. By 1660 it had come to mean “wrong or false information”.

Q: And “disinformation”?

A: Much much younger. In fact, it wasn’t until the start of the Cold War in the late 1940s that “disinformation” became a word – initially taken from a Russian word “dezinformatsiya”. And it had a much clearer, more devious definition: “The dissemination of deliberately false information, especially when supplied by a government or its agent to a foreign power or to the media, with the intention of influencing the policies or opinions of those who receive it”.

Q: Wow okay. So even though they’re both about false information, “disinformation” was practically invented for covert ops!

A: It would seem so. And there is one word which points out the difference between the two perfectly. That word is “deliberately”.

Q: You didn’t even need to deliberate on that one.

A: Haha. So, every day on social media, there is a lot of “misinformation” being spread – perhaps about 5G causing viruses or the real builders of the pyramids or—

Q: Aliens built them. I saw a documentary on it, so it must be true.

A: Um, yeah, well this is usually classed as “misinformation” – definitely ‘wrong’ as per its prefix, but without a real reason as to why it is being spread; just that it went viral somehow.

Q: Went viral? Ooooh too soon.

A: Right, okay. Compare this with “disinformation” – a biased narrative (good or bad) that is intentionally spread by an agency or government. This is the sneakier, nastier one.

Q: So, “misinformation” is like a bumbling idiot getting things wrong, while “disinformation” is a spy lurking in the shadows?

A: Yep, that’s about it.

Q: So is “propaganda” another word for “disinformation”?

A: It’s definitely a form of it. The word “propaganda” had actually been used by the church since the 1700s – related to the propagation or spread of religious beliefs and ideas. It wasn’t until the 1920s that it took on its modern political tones.

Q: I’m glad we had a proper gander at these words today.

A: Haha, yeah. Just remember, if you’re deliberately trying to spread false information, you’re “dis-sing” someone – use “disinformation”. Yet if it’s not clear whether there is intent behind the spread, then it’s a “mis-take” – so use “misinformation”. And if in doubt, always use the latter.

Q: Thanks… I feel suitably informed!

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