How misinformation and disinformation spread, the role of AI, and how we can guard against them

How misinformation and disinformation spread, the role of AI, and how we can guard against them

Kelly M Greenhill, director of the Seminar XXI program, shows how to tell the true from the false, and what it means for politics. An excerpt of the article, originally published in Tufts Now, is featured below.

Kelly M Greenhill
Taylor McNeil
February 23, 2024
Tufts Now

We are swimming in a sea of information, built on a 24/7 cycle of content produced for our endless consumption. Average Americans stare at their smartphones for three and a half hours a day—and soak it all up. 

But how much of it is true? That’s hard to say, but one thing is clear, there’s a lot of misinformation and disinformation out there, and AI makes it easier than ever to create content out of thin air.

What are these different types of non-truthful information, and is their spread growing? And how do we combat it? 

Kelly M Greenhill, associate professor of political science, is an expert in the field. The author of "Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion, and Foreign Policy", she is currently finishing a book exploring the influence of rumorsconspiracy theories, propaganda, myths and other forms of extra-factual information on international politics. 

Greenhill, who is also on the faculty of Tisch College of Civic Life, recently spoke with Tufts Now, explaining the varieties of what she calls extra-factual information and talking about their influence on American politics and what we as consumers of information can do to keep things straight.

Q: What is the difference between misinformation and disinformation?

Misinformation is false or misleading information that is created or spread erroneously, while disinformation is false or misleading information that is knowingly and intentionally spread to cause harm. 

In my own work, I often focus on what I refer to as extra-factual information [PDF], which includes both misinformation and disinformation, along with other forms of unverified and unverifiable information. 

I believe it is important to analyze these disparate forms of information collectively for a few reasons.

One, they are all pervasive in today’s information ecosystem. Two, they are often interconnected; for instance, a misinformation-based rumor can give rise to a disinformation-driven conspiracy theory, based on unverifiable myths about certain individuals or groups in a society. Three, our brains don’t process these different kinds of information differently. And four, the more we hear information, the more it feels “true” to our brains. 

So if we only examine one or another kind of information in isolation, we miss a good deal about what is actually going on, both on the micro-level inside individuals’ heads and on the macro-level in terms of observable outcomes across societies and even transnationally.

Read the rest of the article here.