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Harmful Inaccurate Information: Defining disinformation, misinformation - what it is (and what it is not)

A HEIA Thematic Report January 2024


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Introduction

The spread of false information can lead to extensive harm by eroding trust, cohesion, and the health, education and wellbeing of individuals and groups. But so too can misjudged or overzealous attempts to identify and counter this information. When claims of disinformation are weaponised, and governments, employers and commentators overstep in their attempts to counter disinformation, people’s rights to freedom of opinion and speech can be curtailed. It is this complex dilemma that this report seeks to address.

This report presents the terminology we will use in our assessment of false information in New Zealand. In this report and in our subsequent research we use the term ‘harmful inaccurate information’ (HII) to refer to all misleading information which causes harm or which is likely to have a harmful impact, regardless of whether the spreader of that information is a) aware of its misleading nature or b) intending to cause harm. We use this broad definition because we believe it is best suited to data collection and an analysis of the problem of HII in New Zealand. HII is a term specific to HEIA’s work and has no bearing on DPMC’s or any other work on disinformation. Over the course of our monitoring and reporting we will not propose interventions or solutions to the problem of HII. A more refined set of definitions will be necessary for those who are tasked with doing so.

In the sections that follow we first discuss how inaccurate information can cause extensive harm to individuals, groups, and society and the institutions of a functioning liberal democracy. We then discuss the most common definitions of misinformation, disinformation and related terms, and consider why these more refined terms may not be appropriate for analysis of the scale and nature of a complex and rapidly changing problem. In Section 4 we discuss the issue of free speech and opinion further, and emphasise that any response to disinformation must be wary of impinging on those freedoms from which our democracy gains its strength. At the same time however, we contend that given the harms associated with harmful inaccurate information it is crucial that we understand the nature and scale of the problem in our country and what leads people to spread and believe it. At the end of the report we clarify what we mean by harmful inaccurate information and discuss the considerations that inform our use of the term and our work.


1: The harms caused by inaccurate information

The damage caused by harmful inaccurate information is extensive and undeniable. False claims that the 2020 United States presidential election was stolen played a major role in triggering the January 6 assault on the Capitol and ongoing damage to the country’s democracy and cohesion. False claims about the supposed deviousness and malintent of minority groups has motivated angry and frustrated young men to commit horrific terrorist violence. Inaccurate information can and has caused immediate or longer-term harm to individuals, communities, societal peace and security and institutions.

Harm not only comes in many different forms but also occurs at very different levels. A great deal of inaccurate information – claims that the moon landing was faked for example – has little direct impact. Of course such misinformed beliefs might play a role in eroding trust in science and media, and lead individuals to more consequential conspiracy theories. But our concern is with inaccurate information with the greatest impact on affected individuals, communities and societal and political institutions.

We identify harms occurring in the following ways:

  • Threats to public safety; both in New Zealand and internationally, disinformation has influenced lawful protests to cross a threshold of violence.

  • Increased political and social mistrust; leading to the erosion of democratic processes by undermining democratic norms and threatening the right to freedom of speech and participation; in some cases leading to threats against individuals associated with political and media institutions.

  • Erosion of social cohesion; including polarisation and violence, leading to a change in social relationships and exclusion from established communities and even family; disinformation combined with hate speech targeting vulnerable communities can incite hostility and radicalism.

  • Increased isolation; disengagement from politics and eroded social cohesion may lead to feelings of disenfranchisement and social isolation.

  • Threats to individual wellbeing; individual health behaviours can be influenced by harmful content causing an escalation of fear, or confusion regarding credible information.[1] This can reduce the positive impacts of accurate advice and public health measures, and can lead to decreased access to healthcare; personal harm can also be caused by relying on falsehoods about dangerous treatments.

  • Impacts on decision making; false narratives can make it difficult for individuals to distinguish true information from false information, undermining public confidence in professional sources; information pollution can lead to poorly informed decisions and communications challenges.

  • Financial harm; false information may threaten financial institutions and markets, and lead to decreased trust in banks and other financial institutions. Scams lead to financial loss and debt.


2: Common definitions - and conceptual ambiguity

From our current vantage point it is easy to believe that the Covid-19 pandemic was the starting point of a new wave of - and focus on - disinformation. It is possible to forget that mis and disinformation were already rapidly increasing as topics of public concern before the pandemic, with claims of Russian interference in the American political system, so-called ‘fake news’ and lying media, and other topics given increased focus by media and politicians, particularly in the United States.

Yet the pandemic brought the problem of disinformation into public consciousness like never before. Beliefs about vaccines, about the motives of governments as they took unprecedented steps to quash the virus, and fears and suspicions about other social issues proliferated and converged during the crisis and, in the minds of many, undermined the health response and led to political violence and social instability. This section discusses the common understandings of key terms related to the dissemination of inaccurate information.

Misinformation is content that lacks credibility, making it misleading or false, and is spread regardless of whether there is intent to mislead (Gibbons & Carson, 2022). Examples may include satire, parody, clickbait, or other misleading content. Despite lacking intent to deceive, misinformation may still cause ‘emotional physical, political, financial, or intangible harm to individuals or institutions’ (Gibbons & Carson, 2022, pp. 243-244).

Disinformation is commonly understood as the spread of misleading, inaccurate, or deceptive content to mislead, deceive, or otherwise cause harm (Gibbons & Carson, 2022). This information is designed, presented, and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or profit. There are therefore three key components to disinformation: the dissemination of falsehoods and the use of deception, the potential to cause harm, and an intent to deceive and cause harm. This therefore excludes deceptive messages that are unlikely to cause harm and non-deceptive messages intended to harm others, such as slurs and hate speech.

Current definitions of misinformation and disinformation used by governments in New Zealand, the US, and the UK all converge around varying degrees of falsity, intent and harm. In New Zealand, the National Security Group of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet defines disinformation as ‘false or modified information knowingly and deliberately shared to cause harm or achieve a broader aim’. Misinformation is ‘information that is false or misleading, though not created or shared with the direct intention of causing harm’. The British and United States definitions are similar. [1]

There is growing comprehension of the complexity of this issue however. This involves several interlinked difficulties. First, in only a small proportion of cases of the dissemination of false information is it possible to identify that the person did so with intent, that they knew the information was false or that they spread that information with the intention of harming others. Identifying intent is especially impossible when monitoring the online spread of false information by anonymous actors (as we do in our work). Further, malicious intent might be present at the start of a campaign of disinformation, but that information is often subsequently spread by people who have believed it and believe they are doing so in the public good. For all these reasons, identifying intent in any assessment and analysis of harmful inaccurate information is highly difficult. 

In contrast, we believe that keeping the harm associated with false information at the centre of our analysis is not only more feasible, but allows us to focus on those ideas which we believe to have the most negative impact. This is also not without its conceptual challenges however. We recognise that harm is subjective. Harm means different things to different communities, and the same ideas and information can be seen as both harmful and beneficial by different parts of our society. The majority can perceive an idea as extraordinarily harmful, while a minority see it as more likely to prevent harm, and continue to spread this belief. This dilemma is beyond the scope of this report, and of our analytical work, yet we take it as given that the forms of harms we identified in the previous sections - the withdrawal of individuals and communities from politics and society, the use of violence and wilful damage, deterioration in the health of individuals, and falling trust in our public institutions and services - will be recognised as worthy of concern by most New Zealanders.

Similarly, different members of New Zealand society will have varied perspectives on what information is false and inaccurate. While recognising that new information frequently emerges that challenges prevailing beliefs, we contend that in most cases it is possible to discern where the majority of quality evidence rests.

These assumptions are not without caveats however.

[1] Fact Sheet on the CDU and RRU - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) published 9th June 2023; Foreign Influence Operations and Disinformation | Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency CISA accessed 10 November 2023.


3: The need to protect political opinion and freedom of expression

Free Speech and Disinformation: The ability to comment without coercion on whatever political or social issue people choose (free speech) is crucial to a functioning democracy. Unless it conflicts with any laws (threatening, libelling or vilifying people for example), the dissemination of incorrect information is legal. This is the case even if the inaccurate information causes harm, for example leading people to refuse medical treatment, casting doubt on election integrity and so on. Freedom of speech supports and protects all other fundamental human rights and allows the identification of abuse and injustice, helps to identify and halt the undue concentration of power and supports the right of all to be allowed access to information and to contribute to debate. In New Zealand, free speech is protected under the Bill of Rights Act (1990) which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.”

Restrictions on lawful inaccurate information can work to undermine the very democracy that this intervention seeks to protect. In extreme cases, those who dissent against contentious policies can feel excluded and unheard and choose violence rather than participation in more institutional channels. As Alicia Wanless writes: “the shift toward authoritarianism manifests itself not only with the government propagating its own lies but also with governments exerting increased control over their corner of the information environment at the same time as trust in public institutions is degraded by information pollution”

Differentiating Disinformation from Opinion: Another risk concerns the potential for unpopular, minority or controversial opinions to become labelled as disinformation and discredited. There are few important social, political - or even scientific - issues, for which we have complete information. This leaves the opportunity for each side of a debate to cast doubt on the claims of their opponents. Just as false information can stifle or distort debate, so too can the weaponisation of accusations of disinformation. There is a risk that politicians, commentators and activists can use claims of disinformation to delegitimise the arguments of their opponents, with an escalating spiral of accusations by both sides (whether left and right or along some other cleavage). It is because the boundaries between these two things - deliberate falsehoods and political opinion - can sometimes be so ambiguous, that absolute care must be taken when defining and responding to disinformation. If disinformation is defined too broadly, or used haphazardly in any policy or other intervention, then the risks of legitimate political opinion becoming delegitimised grow.

Taking care in approaching disinformation: In order to protect New Zealand’s liberal democracy and social cohesion, it is crucial that people’s right to express their opinions is protected so long as it does not violate any law. As Freedom House puts it: “Free speech and expression is the lifeblood of democracy, facilitating open debate, the proper consideration of diverse interests and perspectives, and the negotiation and compromise necessary for consensual policy decisions.” Protecting freedom of expression and opinion is also the most effective way to counter disinformation (Broadband Report).

In New Zealand, everyone has the right to form, hold and express opinions “however unpopular, distasteful or contrary to the general opinion or the particular opinion of others in the community”[1] without coercion or undue pressure. This right is also enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Disinformation can interfere with people’s right to freedom of opinion, by deceiving them into believing false information. But so too can the claim that people’s beliefs are not based on fact and are harmful. Again, we must tread extremely carefully in our approach to disinformation so as to allow the free holding and expression of opinion.

Why we need analysis: Yet we emphasise that there is a difference between attempts to restrict the dissemination of false information and efforts to understand the nature and levels of disinformation and the risks it poses. It is crucial to uphold the rights of citizens to form, hold and express opinions which although they may be inaccurate and harmful do not violate laws. But it is also important that we know and understand the nature and volume of this inaccurate information and the impacts it is having on our society. By gaining as accurate a picture of the landscape of damaging ideas as possible we are able to better anticipate and ameliorate the impact of their harm without legislating against particular forms of speech. It also better enables us to avoid overreacting or responding in a counterproductive manner.

Understanding the level and nature of harmful inaccurate information is also necessary if we are to identify the causes of its spread and engagement. The spread and acceptance of false information is often the symptom of much deeper causes including declining trust in (and in the legitimacy of) institutions, those in positions of power, and the democratic system itself. We recognise that the problem of harmful inaccurate information is less extensive in New Zealand than it is in some other countries, yet it may not always remain so. Further, harmful inaccurate information itself undermines New Zealanders’ rights to freedom of expression, opinion and invformation, as false information and even intimidation can silence particular voices, and undermine the freedom of individuals to form their views with the best information available.

If we are to respond effectively and in a measured manner to harmful inaccurate information, we need an accurate picture of what those ideas look like, how many people are engaging with them and what drives them.


Conclusion - The considerations behind our work

When applying our term of harmful inaccurate information we do so with the following considerations.

  • Through our work we focus on understanding the nature and threat of harmful inaccurate information. We are not involved in restricting or otherwise responding to disinformation or in recommending to the Government how this should be done.

  • We believe that Government censorship and government moderation of speech classified as mis or disinformation will impinge on crucial rights related to freedom of speech and opinion and will not ameliorate but may exacerbate the underlying root causes of those beliefs, by potentially generating greater distrust and discontent.

  • However, we also contend that disinformation itself restricts the rights of many members of our society including to the freedom to information, and to form opinions and express speech free from coercion and intimidation.

  • We believe there is abundant evidence that harmful inaccurate information causes or has the potential to cause extensive damage across all sectors of our society. We therefore contend that while restriction on speech may not be an answer, neither is doing nothing.

  • Given this, we contend that it is crucial that the levels and nature of harmful inaccurate information are tracked, understood, and analysed. Without doing so we cannot ameliorate their harmful impacts on our democracy, society and the vulnerable members of the New Zealand whānau.


Disclaimer

This report was commissioned by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) and prepared independently by HEIA. The report does not represent the views of DPMC or the New Zealand Government.

At DPMC’s request, information that could identify any individual person is redacted to protect privacy.


For enquires regarding this report please contact Dr. Chris Wilson at chris@heiaglobal.com








Download this report in PDF format:

HEIA_Thematic_240118_Harmful_Inaccurate_Info
.pdf
Download PDF • 738KB

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