Source criticism – Intentionally misleading sources


Misinformation (incorrect information) and disinformation (intentionally false or misleading information) are two similar concepts where the difference lies in how the information is created. Misinformation occurs when someone has misunderstood facts about something and then spreads it without knowing it is incorrect or misleading. So there is a risk that we spread misinformation when we share posts on social media or spread a rumour. Hence, you need to be critical when sharing information someone else posted on social media. The other concept, disinformation, is created to cause harm.

The origin of disinformation

There are several reasons why someone creates disinformation. Here are some examples:

  • Ideological reasons
    If someone wants to convince people that a particular opinion is the right opinion, they might falsify statements or facts.
  • Make more money
    If you publish statements online that are sensational and controversial, it can lead to more people interacting with your content. More people clicking, reading and sharing the information can lead to more money from adverts to the creator.
  • Foreign influence operations
    This is when one country tries to manipulate the population of another country. Disinformation created by a state often benefits the interests of one's own state and contributes to creating uncertainty and amplifying division in other countries.
  • Internet troll
    Some persons create disinformation to fool and mislead individuals and entire communities. Their plan is to get as much attention as possible, and they want to have their made-up news and opinions displayed in as many places as possible, the more visible the better. They want to provoke people and create commotion caused by the strong emotions their content is intended to generate.

Disinformation is not only dangerous because people believe in it but also because it leads us to distrust all sources of information. How do we know that something is true when everything seems more or less false or angled?

Possible sources of misinformation

Two circumstances that can lead to misinformation are satire and statistics. These are two different phenomena that have in common that they can lead to the creation of misinformation.

  • Satire
    A form of expression where you use humour to ridicule or mock someone or something. Satire is sometimes used as a rhetorical device to provoke or put the opponent in a defensive position. When used this way it is often in the context of prominent societal issues. But content produced in a satirical way has a risk of being misunderstood when the recipient misses the ironic or satirical tone and can, in the worst case, lead to false rumours.
  • Statistics
    Depending on how statistical data is presented it can turn into a source of misinformation. The numbers can be angled in different ways that suit a specific purpose. Since people often have great respect for statistics – charts and percentages are an appealing way to add weight to statements. The problem is that it may not be clear to the reader how the survey behind the statistics was conducted, or if all figures are presented.

Avoid spreading misinformation

Source criticism is incredibly important to avoid spreading misinformation. We need to think about which sources we trust and what we choose to share with friends and family. It can be a good idea to contemplate why you believe in the things that you do believe in. But you also need to listen to people who have opinions that contradict yours. In that way, you can try to see how your opinion differs from those of others and what arguments or facts make others convinced that they are more right than you are.

It may feel hopeless to know that there is so much disinformation in the world, but instead, take it as a chance to develop your source-critical mind and always check carefully before sharing something that someone else shares. Try to not be a part of the disinformation!

The next part in the series on source criticism will address who or what determines what information you have access to.

Read more

Various organizations are constantly working to decrease the amount of mis- and disinformation to make the internet a place that we can trust a little bit more.

Snopes: An international resource with fact-checking and investigative reporting. Here you can take a look at Snope's website.

The Swedish Defense Defense Agency: A newly established Swedish agency that has the mission to lead the coordination and development of Sweden’s psychological defence in collaboration with public authorities and other stakeholders in society. Here is a link to the Swedish Defense Defense Agency website.

In a series of posts, the library goes through some key parts of the concept of source criticism and provides tips on how you can review and evaluate information to assess whether it is relevant and credible.