Disinformation is false information deliberately, intentionally, and sometimes covertly spread (by the planting of rumors or fake news) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth. Misinformation, on the other hand, is defined as false or incorrect information that is spread intentionally or unintentionally, without realizing it is untrue. It is important to get the two terms clear in our minds.
One Sunday years ago, a person in the congregation announced that, “John Doe” had died. No one else had heard this news. Immediately after worship I went to John Doe’s home to offer my condolences to his wife. Much to my surprise and shock, John Doe answered the door! This is misinformation—false information spread without realizing it is untrue. There was no intent to deceive. It was simply a matter of misinformation.
Pope Francis in an interview in December 2016 with Tertio, a Belgian Catholic weekly publication, said the “singular worst thing the news media could do was spreading disinformation (false information deliberately, intentionally, and sometimes covertly spread in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth). The Pope went on to say that amplifying disinformation instead of educating society constituted a sin.” He compared those who spread disinformation to those who engage in coprophilia (an obsessive interest in feces). The Pope later apologized for this crude comparison, but again said, “Disinformation is probably the greatest damage that the media can do.”
You may recall that Pope Francis had some experience with disinformation when he was falsely said to support Donald Trump for president. Do you recall the incident—reported on all major cable networks?
Disinformation was used by the Nazis in 1938, but the term and the practice is most associated with the Soviet KGB. The KGB allegedly formed a department in the 1950’s for the sole purpose of dispensing propaganda (disinformation).
In today’s social media and 24/7 cable news environment we can expect a lot of misinformation, especially in a time of crises or turmoil, like the incident in Fort Lauderdale, FL on Friday. In the midst of such a situation many rumors are reported (not intentionally to mislead) and this is understandable. What is not understandable and cannot be tolerated is the growing amount of disinformation (intentionally publicized in order to influence public opinion) in the media these days, with each network interviewing and letting stand, persons who make statements which are utterly false and spoken only to influence public opinion and obscure the truth, without rebuttal or correction. I stand with Pope Francis and say that “amplifying disinformation instead of educating society constitutes a sin.” Beware!