IN THIS BRIEF:
- What the word ‘disinformation’ means
- What sets disinformation apart from other forms of manipulative or persuasive content
- Why today’s information environment amplifies disinformation
WHAT IS DISINFORMATION? IS IT DIFFERENT FROM PROPAGANDA?
Disinformation is a relatively new word. Most observers trace it back to the Russian word dezinformatsiya, which Soviet planners in the 1950s defined as “dissemination (in the press, on the radio, etc.) of false reports intended to mislead public opinion.” Others suggest that the earliest use of the term originated in 1930s Nazi Germany. In either case, it is much younger (and less commonly used) than ‘propaganda,’ which originated in the 1600s and generally connotes the selective use of information for political effect.
Whether and to what degree these terms overlap is subject to debate. Some define propaganda as the use of non-rational arguments to either advance or undermine a political ideal, and use disinformation as an alternative name for undermining propaganda. Others consider them to be separate concepts altogether. One popular distinction holds that disinformation also describes politically motivated messaging designed explicitly to engender public cynicism, uncertainty, apathy, distrust, and paranoia, all of which disincentivize citizen engagement and mobilization for social or political change. “Misinformation,” meanwhile, generally refers to the inadvertent sharing of false information.
Analysts generally agree that disinformation is always purposeful and not necessarily composed of outright lies or fabrications. It can be composed of mostly true facts, stripped of context or blended with falsehoods to support the intended message, and is always part of a larger plan or agenda. In the Russian context, observers have described its use to pursue Moscow’s foreign policy goals through a “4D” offensive: dismiss an opponent’s claims or allegations, distort events to serve political purposes, distract from one’s own activities, and dismay those who might otherwise oppose one’s goals.