Cyber Bytes: Spotting Disinformation and Misinformation

Cyber Bytes: Spotting Disinformation and Misinformation

Technology is being used to spread false narratives. Learn how to discern fact from fiction.


Disinformation and misinformation are different terms, even though they’re often used interchangeably. According to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA):

  • Disinformation is false information spread deliberately to mislead or confuse enemies or manipulate public opinion.
  • Misinformation is false information spread unintentionally. It may be mistaken as truth and can involve selectively edited images, video or audio.

The key difference between the two is that misinformation isn’t intentional. It can include honest mistakes, exaggerations and misunderstandings of facts.

Both types of false information can spread rapidly through any medium, including broadcast news, print and the internet. However, social media can be a particular catalyst because news spreads so rapidly. In fact, threat actors often use disinformation networks specifically to keep their narrative going.

Disinformation networks are complex networks of threat actors looking to inject chaos, influence and harm. They may cultivate misleading digital personas and websites to make their message more believable. They fabricate expert networks using inauthentic credentials and often claim to be experts in a field to gain influence with their target audience.

The dangers of disinformation and misinformation

Disinformation and misinformation can sway public opinion and even distort democratic processes. Receiving false information reduces your ability to access truthful information and make informed decisions.

Information is vital in shaping public opinion and voting choices during election years. Political deepfake videos can falsely depict politicians making offensive statements or participating in scandalous behavior, eroding trust and public support. Cybercriminals can use deepfakes to influence general opinions on company brands, public health, and global and environmental issues.

TikTok has been scrutinized for spreading disinformation, from COVID-19 conspiracies to political lies. But disinformation isn’t limited to political weaponization. It can be used against anyone. For example, a false narrative about a company’s operations, financial health, leadership or products could go viral, harming the company’s finances and reputation. It could even affect global stock market prices.

The tactics of disinformation

According to CISA, disinformation campaigns share similar elements:

  • They create or amplify conspiracy theories to explain major events or mysterious topics, like secret plots by powerful actors. Conspiracy theories can impact your understanding of a topic and manipulate your worldview. Scammers exploit fears about the unknown.
  • They inundate the information ecosystem, posting overwhelming volumes of content with a similar message to make it seem like everyone’s talking about a certain topic. This is called “astroturfing,” and it can lend credibility to the information. It creates the feeling of a grassroots message while concealing its true identity: a hoax. A similar tactic, called “flooding,” involves spamming the comments sections of social media posts with a false narrative. It gives the impression that the fake narrative is public opinion and drowns out opposing viewpoints. Swindlers create a trending atmosphere and exploit your sense of community.
  • They use deepfakes or synthetic media to mislead you and make false information seem credible. Deepfake artificial intelligence (AI) is a type of AI that uses digital software, machine learning and face swapping to create convincing image, audio and video hoaxes. It’s become a fast favorite of the disinformation crowd. Fraudsters exploit the idea that what you see (and hear) is real; AI makes it much harder to detect a fake.

But there are ways to sharpen your critical thinking and observation skills to disarm these manipulators.

Spotting disinformation and AI deepfakes

Generative AI combined with machine learning is a powerful tool for training movements and video. AI still has a tough time holding longer videos together. Movements start to blend into the surroundings. Natural light and movement become unnatural. Generative AI is impressive but still has issues orienting things in the natural world as humans experience it. To that end, you have an advantage. You might sense that something is off, even if you don’t immediately know why.

Deepfakes are getting harder to spot, but the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) offers some tips to watch for:

  • Cheeks and forehead. Does the skin appear too smooth or too wrinkly? Does the age of the skin match the age of the eyes and hair, or do they seem oddly mismatched?
  • Eyes and eyebrows. Are there shadows and contours? Are the irises dark and reflective or are there strangely lit halos inside? Does the person blink infrequently or too much?
  • Natural lighting. Does the image seem completely filtered or brightly lit, like it’s too perfect? Do shadows appear in places you wouldn’t expect? Deepfakes often have trouble with real-world physics.
  • Eyewear. Does it have too much or too little glare? Does the angle of the glare change when the person moves? Once again, natural lighting and real-world human movement can be a problem for AI.
  • Facial hair or lack of it. Does it appear drawn on or too perfect? Does the facial hair move like you’d expect it to? Deepfaked facial hair might not move when the person moves. It might even glitch or disappear for a moment.
  • Facial blemishes, moles and imperfections. Do moles look natural and stay appropriately oriented on the person’s face? Or does the person have oddly blemish-free skin?
  • Lip movements. Do the lip movements look natural? Is the mouth overly open or wide?

Defects can be subtle. If you have a lot of time to study an image or video, you may get good at trusting your instincts. But even if you have only seconds to figure out a fake, you might be surprised by how much you can perceive. You only need to tune in and know you’re looking for signs of a fake.

As with all scams, the fraudsters want you off guard and under pressure. If you’re not expecting the fake, you might dismiss it as accurate. AI technology can create amazing images at astonishing speeds, but it still hasn’t benefited from living in the real world. Eventually, AI will be able to compensate for this through more machine learning.

Companies are developing AI tools that detect deepfakes, but the technology is still in its infancy. For now, trust your instincts. If something seems off, it probably is.

Verify information and fact-check news items

You can fact-check stories you find using neutral, nonpartisan sources such as:

This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a starting place. Choose fact-checking sites that don’t push biased political, scientific or cultural opinions. Reputable fact-checking sites should present an objective take on the topic, providing vetted sources and nothing more. Look for another fact-checker site if the tone seems skewed toward an agenda.

Ethical reporting takes the time to get both sides of a story. Real reporters set aside biases and verify sources before publishing. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics includes the following statements on ethical journalistic practices across all mediums:

  • Seek truth and report it.
  • Minimize harm.
  • Act independently.
  • Be accountable and transparent.

Like any set of ethics, it’s a guideline of conduct most journalists try to follow. So, if you read a story that strikes you as suspicious or lacking sources, challenge it.

Trust your gut and check sources

Disinformation and misinformation can feel tiresome. But take a minute to step back and look at the larger picture before you react. Fact-check the story at a few unbiased sites. If the story is untrue, don’t forward the message or provide more media attention. Instead, report it to the social media platform or website owner. The World Health Organization explains how to report misinformation.

Stay vigilant and cybersafe out there!

This content is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing professional, financial, medical or legal advice. You should contact your licensed professional to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem.