The debate around misinformation often pays little heed to the semantics of the term, and how we understand it. This lack of conceptual uniformity in defining misinformation is one of the barriers to finding solutions to the problem.

At the outset, we must distinguish misinformation from satire and parody and other forms of ironic content that seek to draw attention to issues by intentionally and humorously exaggerating them, often to absurd extents.

Below, I lay down a set of criteria that can be used to classify misinformation based on nature of content, kind of content, manner in which such news is “fake”. I do not include satire and parody within this classification as they have long been important instruments of both entertainment, and social and political commentary, and should not be grouped together with the forms of misinformation I discuss below.

Different classifications

Manufactured primary content: The nature of content can be broadly classified into primary and secondary content. Primary content is essentially the primary subject of a news article. For instance, statements made by persons, laws and regulations, reports and papers, raw footage or photographs featured in news reports. Secondary content is information, description or analysis of the primary content.

Cases of manufactured primary content would include instances where the entire premise on which an argument is based is patently false.

For instance, in August 2017, Republic TV reported that electricity had been cut in Delhi’s Jama Masjid because the bill had not been paid. This was based on false news published by right-wing website Postcard News. In this case, the false primary content came from Postcard News, and a mainstream media outlet reported it without fact-checking. Such cases are usually a result of poor journalism and fact-checking, where the media picks up false reports without seeking sufficient verification before reporting.

Doctored or manipulated primary content: This is usually a case of manipulation of primary content so as to misrepresent it. This form of misinformation is often seen with respect to multimedia content such as images, pictures, audio and video files, where the content is edited so as convey a different meaning.

In December, images of Prime Minister Narendra Modi holding a football jersey that had “MODI 420” printed on it was doing the rounds on social media and WhatsApp. The number “420” is used to signify a fraud or trickster in India. The image, widely shared, was in fact a photoshopped image from the 13th G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, held in November-December 2018, where Modi was presented with a football jersey by FIFA president Gianni Infantino.

My limited survey of fact-checking websites suggests that doctored or manipulated primary content tends to originate outside of traditional media such as newspapers and television channels, and can often be traced back to social media and WhatsApp forwards. However, we see such unverified stories are increasingly being picked up by traditional media.

Genuine content shared with false context: These are cases where genuine content such as text and pictures are shared with fallacious contexts and descriptions.

In 2017, for instance, it was pointed out that an image shared by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, purportedly of the floodlit India-Pakistan border, in its 2016-’17 report, was actually a photograph of the Spain-Morocco border. In this case, the image itself was not doctored or manipulated, but its description was patently false.

Selective emphasis or use of content: In this case, the primary content is not false or manipulated. But it may be quoted out of context in a manner that, prima facie, suggests there is intent to misrepresent or there has been negligence in reporting a comprehensive account of the facts.

Examples of such content could include selective portrayal of information so as to completely ignore or significantly downplay pertinent facts.

Most examples of poor news coverage, especially by mainstream media, would tend to fall under this category, and not under the previous two categories.

Misinterpretation of content: The primary difference between this category and previous ones is that it does not necessarily suggest intentional or grossly negligent misportrayal of facts. It has more to do with the writer’s inability or lack of diligence in completely understanding the issues involved.

Since there are no discernible ways to establish the context and circumstances under which such reports are created, my approach in these cases has been to afford the originator of the story the benefit of doubt.

Such misrepresentations are often encountered when journalists report on specialised fields such as science and technology, law and finance. In 2017, for instance, newspapers had reported erroneously that the Supreme Court had directed that the government can ask for Aadhaar for Income Tax and PAN card.

No order to this effect had however been passed at that time. What transpired was merely a mention of the issues during a hearing.

Such forms of misinformation, while not suggestive of mala fide intent, can still prove to be quite dangerous in shaping erroneous opinions about important issues.

Way ahead

These classifications, while not necessarily comprehensive, take into account the nature of content and the possible intent of creators and disseminators of content. These factors are instructive when we think of ways to address misinformation. Policy solutions – both mandatory and voluntary – will need to consider the different forms of misinformation and how they may have an impact on them.

The term “fake news” has very little meaning at this point, as it has been used to describe various forms of speech, both spurious and legitimate.

As there is a greater push towards regulation of online content to curb the problem of “fake news”, there is an urgent need to distinguish between its varied forms as they would require different regulatory approaches.

Amber Sinha is programme manager at the Centre for Internet and Society, India.

This is the thirteenth article in a series on extreme speech. Read the complete series here.