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Beyond the Lies - Part Two: Understanding Disinformation



By Zanele Fengu


In the digital age, social media platforms have become indispensable tools for communication, information dissemination, and community building. However, with the widespread adoption of these platforms comes the challenge of managing the proliferation of misinformation, and disinformation


Disinformation refers to deliberately misleading or deceptive content that is disseminated with the intent to cause harm or damage to individuals, organisations, or society as a whole. Unlike misinformation, which may spread inadvertently, disinformation is created and distributed with malicious intent, often to manipulate public opinion, incite fear or outrage, or undermine trust in institutions.


The danger of disinformation lies in its potential to mislead and manipulate large numbers of people, often exploiting emotions and preconceptions to achieve its objectives. By spreading false narratives, disinformation can sow division, erode trust in democratic institutions, and incite violence or unrest in a manner that causes significant damage to our social fabric. Disinformation can have far-reaching consequences, affecting not only individuals' perceptions but also shaping public discourse and policy making.


Examples of disinformation abound across various online platforms. For instance, fabricated news articles designed to stoke fear or inflame tensions between communities constitute disinformation. Similarly, doctored images or videos circulated to discredit political opponents or incite violence fall under this category. Malicious actors may also engage in identity deception, impersonating credible sources or organisations to spread false information and manipulate public opinion.


It's essential to distinguish disinformation from misinformation. While misinformation involves the unintentional dissemination of false or inaccurate information, often due to misunderstanding or lack of verification, disinformation entails the deliberate spread of false information with the intent to deceive and an intent to cause harm or damage. This distinction highlights the intentional and harmful nature of disinformation, setting it apart from other forms of false or misleading content circulating online.


Social Media interventions against false information

Recognizing the harmful impact of false information on their platforms and society at large, social media companies have taken proactive measures to mitigate its spread


  • Content moderation policies

Social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram have implemented stringent content moderation policies to identify and remove malicious content that violates their community standards. This includes content that promotes hate speech, incites violence, or disseminates false or misleading information. Algorithms and artificial intelligence are often employed to detect and flag potentially harmful content for review by human moderators.


  • Fact-checking partnerships

Some social media companies including Facebook have established partnerships with independent fact-checking organisations to verify the accuracy of information shared on their platforms. When users encounter content flagged as potentially false or misleading, they are provided with fact-checked information to help them make more informed decisions about its credibility.


  • Dissemination labels and warnings

To alert users to the presence of potentially deceptive content, X (formerly Twitter) and other social media platforms may apply labels or warnings to posts that have been identified as containing false or misleading information. These labels inform users that the content has been disputed or debunked by fact-checkers and encourage critical thinking when consuming information.


  • Reducing amplification

Social media companies are taking steps to limit the reach and amplification of false information by adjusting their algorithms to deprioritize or suppress content that has been flagged as false or misleading. This helps prevent such content from going viral and reaching a wider audience, thereby mitigating its potential impact.


  • Transparency and accountability

In an effort to foster transparency and accountability, social media companies are increasingly transparent about their content moderation policies, enforcement actions, and efforts to combat malinformation. They regularly publish reports detailing the prevalence of harmful content on their platforms and the actions taken to address it.


While social media companies have made significant strides in combating false information, the battle against deceptive content is ongoing and complex. As new tactics and technologies emerge, these companies must remain vigilant and adaptable in their efforts to safeguard their platforms and users from the harmful effects of disinformation. By working collaboratively with experts, governments, and civil society organisations, social media companies must be obliged to develop effective strategies to mitigate the spread of false information and promote a safer and more trustworthy online environment.


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