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Disinformation: false information that is shared purposefully to mislead others.

Fake news: a general term used for news that is not true; the term is often overused to include news that someone doesn't agree with....more

Hoax: a trick played or lie told that is used to purposefully mislead people...more

Malinformation: information based on truth that is used to harm or mislead others.

Misinformation: false information that someone shares without realizing it's false.

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Where were you the first time you heard the term “fake news”? Maybe you were scrolling Twitter, talking with a friend, or watching a cable news program. You may have been confused about what it means. Its strict definition is “news that is inaccurate.” However, sometimes that term is used to describe news that a person doesn’t like, including opinion pieces. For this reason, the term “fake news” is oftentimes meaningless. That’s why media researchers say the term "fake news" is too vague to describe today’s complicated problem of inaccurate news. 

Instead, experts break it down into three specific categories known as “information disorder”: 

  1. Misinformation: False information someone shares without knowing it’s untrue

  2. Disinformation: False information that’s shared with the intention to harm or mislead

  3. Malinformation: True information that’s used to harm others

Misinformation vs disinformation vs malinformation

The three information disorder categories can then take seven different forms. You may recognize some of them, like satire, trying to frame someone, tricking the readers, and manipulating photos to support the story. The News Co/Lab put together a detailed student’s guide to information disorder, full of examples that help to explain how you may see these different types of inaccurate news in your daily life. Remember that at the end of the day, different forms of misleading content all have the same effect: convincing people of something that isn’t real. But if you can be more critical of the information you read before you pass it on, you can help reduce the spread of false information.

An image showing the potential spread of false information, and how this can be combatted when people check what they read before they pass it on.

This image from the World Health Organization shows how the spread of incorrect scientific information can be slowed. Don't spread rumors, double-check the "facts" of what you read, use trusted sources, and think critically about information sources.

Want to play a game? Some online games can help you recognize the way online misinformation works. They can also help you recognize when you see inaccurate information online! Try one of these five games to better understand “fake news.”

View Citation

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Bibliographic details:

  • Article: What Is Fake News?
  • Author(s): Serena O’Sullivan
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Site name: ASU - Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: December 16, 2020
  • Date accessed: April 16, 2021
  • Link: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/fake-news

APA Style

Serena O’Sullivan. (2020, December 16). What Is Fake News?. ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved April 16, 2021 from https://askabiologist.asu.edu/fake-news

American Psychological Association. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/10/

Chicago Manual of Style

Serena O’Sullivan. "What Is Fake News?". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 16 December, 2020. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/fake-news

MLA 2017 Style

Serena O’Sullivan. "What Is Fake News?". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 16 Dec 2020. ASU - Ask A Biologist, Web. 16 Apr 2021. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/fake-news

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/
Handwritten cardboard poster - Science isn't you know, just like, your OPINION man!
Science is not a belief system. It works on facts and data. It is true that as we learn new information our conclusions can change, but always with an eye on the most current research. Photo: Flixr, Creative Commons

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