Word Largely Tied to the General Awareness of Technology’s Growing Role in the Spread of False Information
Dictionary.com today announced it has named misinformation its 2018 Word of the Year. Defined as “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead,” the word describes a phenomenon that has emerged given the large role technology plays in the spread of information, misinformation and disinformation alike. In an era of division about identity, environmental, health, political and economic concerns, the rise of misinformation has been profound.
“The recent explosion of misinformation and the growing vocabulary we use to understand it have come up again and again in the work of our lexicographers,” said Jane Solomon, Linguist-in-Residence at Dictionary.com. “Over the last couple of years, Dictionary.com has been defining words and updating terms related to the evolving understanding of misinformation including disinformation, echo chamber, confirmation bias, filter bubble, conspiracy theory, fake news, post-fact, post-truth, homophily, influencer, and gatekeeper.”
“The word misinformation is particularly interesting as its meaning is widely conflated with disinformation,” Solomon continued. “The intent behind the two words is important to note – with misinformation, the intent is generally not to mislead; with disinformation, the intent is always to mislead.”
Tech’s Fake News Reckoning
This year saw international concern around technology companies’ role in the increasing spread of false information online. Instances of social media used to incite violence or conflict have been documented across the globe this year, in some cases, leading to devastating results. Hate speech and rumors posted to Facebook facilitated violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, riots started in Sri Lanka after false news set the country’s Buddhist majority against Muslims, and false rumors about child kidnappers on WhatsApp led to mob violence in India.
Facebook is still dealing with the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal earlier this year that sought to change voters’ opinions by disseminating fake news and propaganda. Attempts to suppress voters continued through the 2018 midterm elections, which saw several types of misinformation in the form of hoaxes, false stories, and rumors. From doctored photos of long lines, malfunctioning voting machines, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arresting voters at the polls to false texts claiming inaccurate information – such as updated polling hours, new ID requirements, or updated registration status – there was no shortage of misinformation running rampant up to election day. Voter manipulation wasn’t just limited to the United States either; in Brazil, where social media is a source of news for two-thirds of the country, the recent election was plagued by misinformation from supporters of the top two candidates, on everything from voting times to false campaign promises.
Conspiracy theories are another form of misinformation proliferating on social media. From the QAnon community to the theory that Parkland school shooting survivors were crisis actors, there is no shortage of false stories online, especially following breaking news events. An influx of misinformation around the migrant caravan from Honduras has recently plagued the internet, suggesting that – depending on where viewed – rich liberals are funding the migrants’ journey, Republican operatives are behind the caravan to galvanize GOP voters, or that other migrant groups, whether from Mexico or the Middle East, will soon join the caravan. Theories surrounding the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, including that his fiancée is fake, swirled almost immediately after his death. The spread of misinformation around his death was quickly followed by a fake fact-checking Twitter account, which was later suspended after being deemed fraudulent.
Seeing little progress in the fight against fake news, tech leaders continue to grapple with how to prevent the falsities that so quickly emanate from their platforms. Reddit created a “war room” to combat propaganda and misinformation circulating in its forums, following its decision to ban the conspiracy-focused subreddit r/greatawakening for posting content that violates its content policies. Several companies, including Apple, Facebook, Spotify, Twitter, and YouTube, banned or suspended Infowars and its owner Alex Jones from their platforms after repeated postings of violent or hateful content.
It’s not just politics that are front and center when it comes to misinformation online. Environmental discussions are rife with inaccuracies, some of which are growing in popularity. Take the rise of flat earthers – there are countless podcasts and videos that discuss the notion of a global cover up that the earth is not, in fact, round. Climate change is another example – a recent United Nations report pointed to the extreme consequences of earth’s rapid warming, but US politicians able to enact policies to combat it largely disregard the impact of humans on this change.
A Health Crisis
We’ve also seen the rise of misinfodemics over the last several years, which is the spread of misinformation about health that leads to the spread of real-world health crises. This is seen with the anti-vaxxer movement, which started with a report by a former physician whose license was revoked and work retracted, but whose efforts have led to a sustained fear of vaccines. A study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Public Health found that the same troll and bot accounts that attempted to influence the US election had also been sharing false information about vaccines on Twitter, with the goal of eroding public trust in vaccines.
There are frequent gaps between scientific research and practices stemming from that research being implemented, leading to years, even decades, of operating based on incorrect beliefs. One example of this is around obesity. Many studies have shown that weight is not necessarily a sign of poor health. But society continues to push the narrative that more weight means more health issues.
“Recognizing misinformation as the 2018 Word of the Year following identity (2015), xenophobia (2016), and complicit (2017) reveals once again the perspective that we can gain by thinking about the words of our time,” said Liz McMillan, CEO of Dictionary.com. “The emergence of a lexicon to describe misinformation alone is a telling sign. By arming our users with these words and enabling them to identify misinformation when it is encountered gives us a fighting chance against its influence.”
representation: Representation jumped out to us thanks to the box-office success of films like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians. Additionally, this word resonated with the historic midterm election wins for Muslim women, Native Americans, and LGBTQ candidates.
self-made: The word self-made surged in lookups after the publication of a Forbes cover story calling Kylie Jenner a “self-made billionaire.” This word was also top-of-mind when the New York Times published an exposé about the true source of President Trump’s wealth.
backlash: In 2018 we saw a backlash to the Me Too movement in certain circles, a backlash to Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, and a backlash against harsh voter suppression tactics.
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