10 Information Disorder, Truth, and Trust

Illustration of a heart outweighing a brain on a scale

“We tend to think that we have rational relationships to information, but we don’t. We have emotional relationships to information, which is why the most effective disinformation draws on our underlying fears and worldviews….We’re less likely to be critical of information that reinforces our worldview or taps into our deep-seated emotional responses” (Wardle, qtd. in Vongkiatkajorn; emphasis added).


In an information environment shaped by pervasive algorithms, the attention economy, engagement, and polarization, how do we determine truth? How do we know which sources of information to trust? These questions are becoming increasingly difficult to answer, and even more so as “disinformation that is designed to provoke an emotional reaction can flourish in these spaces” (Wardle).
Line drawing of a mind filled with scribble

Indeed, in 2016, Oxford Dictionaries selected post-truth as the Word of the Year, defining this as: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”


A 2020 study from Project Information Literacy confirms that the way information is delivered today—with opinion and propaganda mingled with traditional news sources, and with algorithms highlighting sources based on engagement rather than quality—has left many college students concerned about the trustworthiness of online content. Students reported that it was difficult to know where to place their trust when credible sources are buried by a deluge of poorer-quality content and misinformation. One student noted that “it’s not that we’re lacking credible information. It’s that we’re drowning in like a sea of all these different points out there” (Head et al. 20).

“This is happening at a time when falsehoods proliferate and trust in truth-seeking institutions is being undermined. Even the very existence of truth itself has come into question….People no longer know what to believe or on what grounds we can determine what is true” (Head et al. 11, 36).

Essential Definitions

First, it is important to establish a shared vocabulary and terminology so that we can better understand and discuss these concepts. Claire Wardle, a world-renowned expert in this field, has used “information disorder” as an umbrella term for the various types of false, misleading, manipulated, or deceptive information we have seen flourish in recent years. She also created an essential glossary for information disorder, with definitions for related words and phrases. For example, you will find helpful definitions for terms like algorithm, bots, data mining, deepfakes, doxing, sock puppet, and trolling.

The graphic below illustrates the scale and range of intent behind false information, from unintentionally inaccurate to deliberately deceptive and harmful. For a much more detailed explanation of each form of information disorder, from “satire” to “fabricated content” to “false context,” see First Draft’s Essential Guide to Understanding Information Disorder.
Information disorder Venn diagram described in link below


“First Draft’s Essential Guide to Understanding Information Disorder” by Claire Wardle is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Head, Alison J., Barbara Fister, and Margy MacMillan. “Information Literacy in the Age of Algorithms.” Project Information Literacy, 15 Jan. 2020. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Image: “3 Types of Information Disorder” graphic by Claire Wardle & Hossein Derakshan is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Image: “Cognition and Emotion” by ElisaRiva on Pixabay

Image: “Line Mind” by ElisaRiva on Pixabay

Oxford Word of the Year 2016.” Oxford Languages, Oxford University Press.

Vongkiatkajorn, Kanyakrit. “Here’s How You Can Fight Back Against Disinformation.” Mother Jones, 9. Aug. 2018.

Wardle, Claire. “Information Disorder, Part 1: The Essential Glossary.” First Draft, 9 July 2018.



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Introduction to College Research Copyright © by Walter D. Butler; Aloha Sargent; and Kelsey Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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