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How does disinformation work?

Black background with top view of brain in centre. The brain is surrounded by yellow lights.
It is often difficult for people to distinguish between real news or accurate information and fake news or incorrect information. Why exactly is it so difficult to be critical of information? And what techniques are used to influence us?

Why do we believe in disinformation?

This relates to the way our brain processes information. In reality, our brain is not very well adapted to the streams of information we receive today. In essence, it is lazy and tends to focus on thinking and acting quickly. Our brain constantly seeks confirmation of the beliefs and ideas we already have. So, we are more likely to believe information that feels familiar, logical and/or recognizable

Moreover, as human beings, we are always trying to understand everything around us, and this makes us vulnerable. When we read or hear a simple and easily understandable explanation for things happening around us, our brains are sensitive to it. The truth is, we are much more comfortable when we feel we understand the world we live in. 

Disinformation very often plays on emotions that capture our attention. So, if the information also affects us personally and is very much in line with how we already think, we can very quickly assume false information is true. 

Thus, it is important not to be influenced by a single stream of information, but to always consult multiple information streams before making a final judgement


Influencing techniques

There are numerous (influencing) techniques used to spread disinformation. 

Many of these techniques involve technically manipulating information systems and social media platforms

  • For example, automated scripts or (online ro)bots are often used. An Internet bot is a software application that performs automated tasks on the Internet. Bots are regularly deployed with the aim of influencing a selected target audience by inundating it with certain messages in the hope that something will stick.
  • There are also algorithms on social media. When we do anything on the internet through our smartphone, computer or tablet, such as using apps or making purchases online, it produces data that can be analyzed. Algorithms are mathematical formulae that sift through all this data, organise it and predict or even guide our behaviour on this basis. Algorithms are often designed to respond to our brains' desire for confirmation and often only show posts or pages that match your (online) behavioural pattern. Thus, in time you end up in an information bubble that constantly confirms your own beliefs and ideas and leaves little room for alternative opinions. 

There are also numerous techniques aimed at manipulating the target audience

  • Gaslighting, for example, involves the instigator relentlessly spreading a false narrative that causes the target audience to begin to question their own perceptions to the point where they become disoriented and upset. 
  • Trolling is also commonly used. Internet trolls are users who engage in provocative behaviour online for their own pleasure (or gain) in an attempt to provoke violent emotions in others or steer the online debate away from the topic at hand. 
  • The importance of words and language in disinformation should not be underestimated either. For example, there is a technique called framing, which is the choice of very specific words to encourage a particular perception of reality. 
  • Disinformation also often employs certain misleading writing or debating techniques, such as false arguments or fallacies. A fallacy is an error in logic or reasoning that causes the argument to actually make no sense and/or not hold up. 

The European Commission made a video about disinformation and the techniques behind it. Watch the video here.