Q&A: Misinformation or disinformation

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!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

Browse posts by category
Browse posts by category

Courses starting soon


Nice one! You've added this to your cart