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Online disinformation is a mounting challenge for journalists seeking reliable sources for news and reference. In this article, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) outlines different types of commonly used online disinformation techniques.

The fight against online disinformation and deliberate “fake news” is one of the major challenges for journalism in the 21st century. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) works intensively on this issue with the International Initiative on Information and Democracy and the Journalism Trust Initiative, two systemic solutions that aim at defending and promoting freedom, independence, pluralism, and reliability of information around the world.

Online disinformation can take many forms. The following categories stem from a detailed report on Information Disorder, commissioned by the Council of Europe and written by non-profit coalition First Draft News.

The report explains that a simple check of “true” and “false” information is less pertinent than determining the intention of the authors: true information can be used maliciously, and combined with fabrications or inappropriate context to mislead readers.

The following are ranked in order of harmfulness:

1. Fabricated content: entirely false news content, designed to deceive and do harm. While the world may have laughed after an AI-generated image of Pope Francis wearing a Balenciaga coat went viral in 2023, influential figures are often at the centre of more serious instances of fabricated content, such as false reports in 2016 that the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump’s candidacy in the US presidential election.

2. Manipulated content: genuine information or imagery that is manipulated to deceive the reader. Edited images can spread especially quickly: for example, a photoshopped picture of a pro-Beijing Hong Kong politician carrying an American flag surrounded by pro-democracy protesters sparked backlash from his supporters. 

3. Imposter content: genuine sources that are impersonated to fool the reader and/or discredit the supposed source. This tactic was used during the 2017 Kenyan elections, when videos and reports mimicking well-known international news outlets such as CNN and the BBC shared false information, including inaccurate polling data. 

4. False context: genuine content shared with false contextual information, such as clip videos that showed US President Biden stating he “sold a lot of state secrets” without indicating that the remark was a joke. False context also includes sharing old content under the guise of new information, like an outdated South African weather report warning of low temperatures and snowfall that has repeatedly been circulated as if it was current. 

5. Misleading content: misleading use of information to frame an issue or individual in a certain narrative. For instance, some news articles have misrepresented scientific data related to Covid-19, such as a report that used a study showing vaccines had a minimal impact on overall mortality to discredit their efficacy against the coronavirus, when the actual purpose of the study was to examine whether vaccines had any effect on non-Covid-related causes of death. 

6. False connection: headlines, visuals, and captions that contradict or do not support the news content. Sometimes, even mainstream media outlets use this tactic, such as in a report that presented an attention-grabbing headline (“Those french fries could kill you”), while the article itself did not reveal any causal link between frequent fry consumption and increased mortality risk. 

7. Satire or parody: has no intention to cause harm, but has the potential to fool the reader who does not check references. For example, popular American satire website The Onion, well-known for its political parodies, has still occasionally had its claims mistaken for truth