“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means,” says Inigo Montoya after Vizzini repeatedly mutters “inconceivable!” as events unfold in “The Princess Bride.” It’s been a classic line since the movie’s release in 1987. As it should be.
How often do we catch ourselves misusing words? Another classic example comes from Sheridan’s 18th century comedy, “The Rivals,” in which Mrs. Malaprop misspeaks, using words that sound similar to those with her intended meaning. Her name comes from the French “mal a propos,” or simply “inappropriate.” We call such misuse “malapropisms.” A lesser-known name is “Dogberryism,” from a Shakespearean character who spouts malapropisms in “Much Ado About Nothing.z’
Who knew? Wikipedia did.
Malapropisms might also be considered a form of misinformation, a form that is not always humorous. A newer word, malinformation has appeared. It’s not yet in the mainstream lexicon, but it’s definitely alive and well. Academic papers are already being published about it. The word describes maliciously used factual information. It’s part of a broader “information disorder.”
Researchers from the Council of Europe developed a framework “for understanding and analyzing the challenges related to information disorder.” They wrote that “fake news” didn’t really represent the “different facets of false information and information pollution.” They also observed that “fake news” has been used by individuals and groups to “undermine and discredit” legitimate media organizations. They identified three different categories of information:
— Misinformation: False information spread without intent to harm. It includes accidental mistakes, such as inaccurate captions, dates, statistics, translations, or satirical contents taken seriously by consumers of information.
— Disinformation: False information created and spread to cause harm; intentionally manipulated or misconstrued contents and messages, including conspiracy theories or rumors, created to harm a person, social group, organization or country.
— Malinformation: Factual information deliberately published to cause harm for personal or private interest, as well as manipulation of such content.
Bad information — it’s everywhere and getting worse!
The RAND Corporation studied the “diminishing role of facts and analysis in American public life,“ calling it “truth decay.” RAND identifies four trends:
— Increasing disagreement about facts.
— Blurring the line between opinion and fact.
— Increasing relative volume and influence of opinion over fact.
— Declining trust in formerly respected sources of facts.
These arise from the following causes:
— Cognitive biases: Mental patterns that lead people to form beliefs that don’t reflect reality.
— Changes in the information system, such as 24-hour dissemination of information by all forms of media.
— Competing demands on the educational system that reduce its ability to keep pace with information system changes.
— Societal polarization.
We can arm ourselves against these problems. We can avoid using the politicized label “fake news” because its polarizing effects tend to shut down conversations. In its place we can use the three specific terms listed above: misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation. We can also evaluate sources and cross-check information, using these techniques:
Ask, “Where did this information come from?” Check the “About” page on a website, if one exists. Check authors’ credentials and any citations for their sources. “Triangulation,” a geometric technique for pinpointing a location, can be adapted for corroborating facts: you can mine the same information from multiple sources. Check facts and verify them. Develop a source list that you consider trustworthy and reliable. And ask yourself why you consider those sources trustworthy and reliable. You might uncover some personal cognitive biases.
You can practice these techniques in the pages of the Daily News. Recent columns and letters have presented many sides of current hot-button issues, such as climate change, vaccinations, mandatory masking and all manner of “government overreach.” Heated rhetoric is a good clue to questionable arguments. Repeating something louder and longer can both strengthen support and garner opposition. Beware of cherry-picked “facts.”
If we can detach ourselves enough to elevate discourse with quietly stated facts and reason, it will go a long way toward bringing people together to work for common good.
Digest information carefully, and don’t bite off what you can’t swallow. Support information with teeth in it. Invoke the truth fairy to help you avoid truth decay. Such an idea is not inconceivable.