A unified account of information, misinformation, and disinformation

Abstract

In this paper I develop and present a unified account of information, misinformation, and disinformation and their interconnections. The unified account is rooted in Paul Grice’s notions of natural and non-natural meaning (in: Grice (ed) Studies in the way of words. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp 213–223, 1957) and a corresponding distinction between natural and non-natural information (Scarantino and Piccinini in Metaphilosophy 41(3):313–330, 2010). I argue that we can specify at least three specific kinds of non-natural information. Thus, as varieties of non-natural information there is intentionally non-misleading information, unintentionally misleading information—i.e. misinformation—and intentionally misleading information—i.e. disinformation. By shifting the focus from the truth-values of content to the intention/intentionality and misleadingness/non-misleadingness of that content I obtain a unified account that makes room for the potential misleadingness of true content (true disinformation), the potential non-misleadingness of false content (irony), and everything in between.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Except for Søe (2016). The present article presents and further develops some of the key findings from the thesis. See also Søe (2018, 2019).

  2. 2.

    There is also some philosophical literature on propaganda or lying, misleading, and deceiving in general (e.g. Adler 1997; Grice 1967; Mahon 2008; Fallis 2010; Stanley 2015; Stokke 2013; Webber 2013, to name but a few).

  3. 3.

    For an overview of accounts of information other than semantic information see Adriaans (2012).

  4. 4.

    Fallis (2015) distinguishes between two ways in which something can acquire a function. A function can be acquired through evolution or through design where the designed function is intended or intentional. “Disinformation can acquire the function of misleading people in either of these two ways. Most forms of disinformation, such as lies and propaganda, are misleading because the source intends the information to be misleading. But other forms of disinformation, such as conspiracy theories and fake alarm calls, are misleading simply because the source systematically benefits from their being misleading” (Fallis 2015, p. 413).

  5. 5.

    That non-natural meaning is reduced to intentions is the reason why it is a mentalist account of meaning. Meaning is explained in terms of specific mental states.

  6. 6.

    MeaningNN is Grice’s notation for non-natural meaning.

  7. 7.

    “‘Truthful’ is used here as synonymous for ‘true’, to mean ‘representing or conveying true contents about the referred situation or topic.’ It is preferable to speak of ‘truthful data’ rather than ‘true data’ because the data in question may not be linguistic (a map, for example, is truthful rather than true) and because we have seen that ‘true data’ may give rise to a confusion, as if one were stressing the genuine nature of the data in question, not their positive alethic value” (Floridi 2005a, pp. 366–367).

  8. 8.

    Implicatures need not be misleading. They need neither be false, nor render the utterance, ambiguous, complicated, or suggestive. Most of the time implicatures are generated, worked out, and understood without difficulty and without being misleading.

  9. 9.

    Knowledge and the Flow of Information (1981) and Précis of Knowledge and the Flow of Information (1983).

  10. 10.

    Floridi (2011) does offer a theory of truth within his own ontological understanding of philosophy of information. However, this theory—called The Correctness Theory of Truth—does not figure as a part of the discussions regarding a truth requirement for information.

  11. 11.

    Aside from the acknowledgement that naturalization of intentionality is needed.

  12. 12.

    Fox paraphrases Grice’s categories of maxims into a briefer list of four maxims: “(1) Be as informative (but no more so) than is required for the current purposes of the exchange. (2) Be truthful. (3) Be relevant. (4) Be brief, clear, and orderly” (Fox 1983, p. 128).

  13. 13.

    The notion of meaning that Dretske alludes to is Grice’s (1957) notion of non-natural meaning (cf. Sect. 2). According to Dretske, semantic information is equivalent to Grice’s notion of natural meaning (cf. Sect. 2). Thus, the signals about events and the informational content are instances of natural meaning, whereas non-natural meaning is ascribed to the signals and the informational content by agents in order to make sense of the signals—i.e., in order to understand them.

  14. 14.

    This picture (cf. Floridi 2005b) does reflect the written definitions of information, misinformation, and disinformation that Floridi (2005b, 2011) offers. In the written definitions, information (as well-formed, meaningful, and truthful data) is contrasted with misinformation (as well-formed meaningful and false data). Disinformation is then the kind of misinformation that is intended to deceive.

  15. 15.

    Dretske (1981) refers to his own notion of information as semantic information, so do Scarantino and Piccinini (2010).

  16. 16.

    Irony is stated as an example of conversational implicature in Logic and Conversation (Grice 1967). According to Grice, irony comes about by flouting the first maxim of quality—i.e., the utterer says something that s/he believes to be false, but does it in such a way that the hearer can work it out whereby it is not misleading.

  17. 17.

    Instructional information can be described as drawings of how to build, repair, or do something—possibly with some writing of the form ‘Do A, then B, then C, etc.’ as well. In short, it refers to imperative instructions, manuals, and the like (Floridi 2005b).

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Acknowledgements

I wish to thank Jens-Erik Mai, Erik J. Olsson, Jack Andersen, Patrick Blackburn, Laura Skouvig, Don Fallis, Gualtiero Piccinini, and Fred Adams for comments, improvements, and guidance.

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Correspondence to Sille Obelitz Søe.

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Søe, S.O. A unified account of information, misinformation, and disinformation. Synthese 198, 5929–5949 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02444-x

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Keywords

  • Philosophy of information
  • Information
  • Misinformation
  • Disinformation
  • Meaning
  • Truth
  • Intention