Information Basics: Mis-, Dis-, and Malinformation

Examining the differences between mis-, dis-, and malinformation


Hoaxlines Lab

Johns Hopkins School of Public Health (2022)


July 20, 2021


February 5, 2024

Mis-, dis-, and malinformation: What’s the difference?

MDM, as we will abbreviate it, can seem confusing at first. When assessing which term best fits, ask if something is true, whether it is politically motivated, and if there is harm or deceptive intent.

Mis-, dis-, and malinformation defined (Wardle, 2017).
Figure 1: Mis-, dis-, and malinformation defined (Wardle, 2017).

False or misleading information spread by someone who believes false information to be true is misinformation. The impact of disinformation and misinformation may be the same. Whether false or misleading information is shared intentionally determines which of these two terms it is.

Information shared with the intent to mislead is disinformation. Disinformation is often used as a catch-all term for all false information, but we distinguish it from misinformation by the intent to deceive.

The deliberate publication of private information for personal or private interest and the deliberate manipulation of genuine content. This is often done by moving private information or revealing information about an individual, taken out of context, into the public sphere.

What’s the Difference Between Mis-, Dis-, and Malinformation?

Misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation, abbreviated as MDM, can initially seem confusing. Disinformation is often used as a catch-all term for all false information, but we distinguish it from misinformation by the intent to deceive. Malinformation is true or information not on the true-false spectrum.

To make the assessment easier, consider three things about a claim: how factually accurate it is, whether it’s politically or selfishly motivated, and whether the person making a claim knows it’s misleading or false.

Is this claim true? Look for fact-checks related to the claim. The fact-check explorer is a fact-check search engine. Also, see what relevant experts say about a claim.

  • Political figures and private interests like the fossil fuel industry commonly use fake experts.

  • Using many fake experts in multiple places creates the appearance of a debate–it’s a fake debate.

Could the claim be using common Techniques of Science Denial?

  • Is it being reported by major media outlets regardless of political bias?

  • How has the source mitigated its bias?

Is the claim motivated by personal, ideological, or political beliefs? Look at who is making the claim, and ask, why now. An example of a sign that more investigation is needed would be a financial interest in the claim that wasn’t shared.

  • Partisan figures should rarely be used as a primary source.

  • Every effort should be made to independently confirm their claims and their responses should be examined critically.

  • What does the source have to gain if I believe what they are saying, and what if I do not?

  • Does the source want something from you, like support, donations, or a vote?

Are details about the situation being left out, and are the omitted details favorable to the person making a claim?

  • Are hyperpartisan websites the only outlets publishing the story or claim?

  • Is the claim being framed using emotional or moralistic language that tells an audience how they should feel about the situation?

  • Does the story include black-and-white claims?

Examples of broad claims that don’t hold up to scrutiny:

  • All people who receive government support are lazy.

  • Rich people don’t pay taxes.

  • It was fair if I won the election; if I lost, it was rigged.

Look for evidence the source of the information knows it’s false or misleading.

  • Is the source of information financially, legally, or socially linked in a way that creates a conflict of interest?

  • Did the person try to conceal or fail to disclose information that suggests they may not be forthcoming about the situation?

Finding concrete evidence someone knows something is false can be hard, especially if we lack relevant expertise. Look at what the people who know the subject best are saying. Information is not like art class. If 99% of people came to one conclusion and 1% does not, the 1% is not a visionary or a free-thinker. Most likely, they’re wrong.

  • Does the person have good reason to believe they know better than an entire field of devoted scholars?

  • When organizations are politically motivated, they can often bias the information they share in favor of their political party. This doesn’t mean they necessarily lied to you. Sometimes it’s simply an emphasis on certain facts over others, which can change how we think and feel about the information.

Examples by Type

False or misleading information spread by someone who believes the false information to be true. The impact of disinformation and misinformation can be the same. Whether false information is shared intentionally or not, it is still dangerous.

Examples of Misinformation
  • A person who repeats a rumor that a celebrity has died, assuming the person sharing the rumor believes it and the celebrity has not died.

  • A parent tells others that an illness that followed a vaccination was caused by the vaccine when the child fell ill coincidentally, and the illness was unrelated. The parent perceives the vaccine as the cause, even though it is not in this example.

  • Someone without the needed background reads a highly specialized study and misunderstands the data. The person repeats the misunderstanding because they believe it.

Case Studies

Rumors about the Champs-Elysees attack

The attack on the Champs Elysees on 20 April 2017 inspired much misinformation, as is the case in almost all breaking news situations. Individuals on social media unwittingly published several rumors, for example, the news that a second policeman had been killed. The people sharing this type of content don’t seem to intend harm. Rather, they are caught up in the moment, trying to be helpful, and fail to adequately inspect the information they are sharing.

Mapping the Spread of Claims about SM-102, a Compound That Is Not a “Deadly Poison.”

People drew false conclusions after reading the ingredients on a vaccine label. Those claims were spread online across social media and may have been amplified by inauthentic activity. This demonstrates how those who wish to disinform can leverage authentic misinformation, effectively turning it into disinformation – false content the sharer knows is false, with deceptive intent, with political aim.

False or misleading information spread by someone who knows the information is false or misleading. Whether false or misleading information is shared intentionally determines whether it is categorized as mis- or disinformation.

Examples of Disinformation
  • Russian state-controlled outlets RT and Sputnik began airing segments on 5G where its “correspondent,” Michele Greenstein, warned that 5G “might kill you.”

  • The Independent reported that a network of accounts claimed that Covid-19 could have been imported to China from the United States through a batch of Maine lobsters shipped to a seafood market in Wuhan in November 2019. There is no evidence of this.

  • In September 2020, a video that seemed to show ballot harvesting was released. The Election Integrity Partnership reported the video contained misleading and false claims.

More Examples of Disinformation

A popular target for 2020 and 2021 was science adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci

Anti-Semitic and other racially divisive disinformation is common

Fear conjuring from political figures is a staple in the disinformation genre

The deliberate publication of private or privileged information to manipulate public perception, often for private interests or political gain, or intimidating the individual.

Malinformation is often information about an individual or group, taken out of context, into the public sphere, but it also includes information that doesn’t fall on the true-false spectrum. Examples include hate speech, targeted harassment, and manipulative speculation about the future.

Examples of Malinformation

Russian agents hacked into emails from the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign and leaked certain details to the public to damage reputations.

Classified U.S.-UK trade documents leaked ahead of Britain’s 2019 election were stolen from the email account of former trade minister Liam Fox by suspected Russian hackers, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

The 2021 Epik leak: unnamed hackers leaked 180+ gigabytes containing information related to some of the most controversial websites, like those belonging to extremists.

More Examples of Malinformation

Malinformation is true- or information that does not exist on the true-false spectrum, so handling it can be complicated. Historically, journalists have sought to find out if the information was true before publishing. Now, journalists must consider the intentions behind hacked or stolen private information.

Not considering aspects beyond whether the information is true may make one an unwitting accomplice in an information operation. Source hacking was one of the original tactics used to spread mal- and disinformation, especially before social media. All “leaks” are not malinformation because every so often, the content is a forgery being passed off as authentic content. Such an example would be disinformation since the content is false or misleading.

Comparing Information Types

Table 1: Info = information; Misinfo = misinformation; Disinfo = disinformation; Malinfo = malinformation
Trait True False or misleading Current Manipulative Harm intended
Info Yes No Yes No No
Misinfo Yes or No Yes Yes or No No No
Disinfo Yes or No Yes Yes or No Yes Yes
Malinfo Yes No Yes or No Yes Yes

Originally published by


BibTeX citation:
  author = {Li, E. Rosalie},
  publisher = {Hoaxlines Lab},
  title = {Information {Basics:} {Mis-,} {Dis-,} and {Malinformation}},
  journal = {Hoaxlines Lab},
  date = {2021-07-20},
  url = {},
  langid = {en}
For attribution, please cite this work as:
Li, E. Rosalie. 2021. “Information Basics: Mis-, Dis-, and Malinformation.” Hoaxlines Lab, July.