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Political Misinformation and Disinformation
ONC Editorial

Aug 20, 2023

What's the difference?

Political misinformation is the unintentional sharing of misleading information. Political disinformation is the intentional dissemination of false information in order to further one’s agenda. The difference simply comes down to intention. 

Non-political elites — average voters — are more likely to spread political misinformation; they do not have enough time or knowledge to be familiar with all aspects of an issue. They are more likely to experience primacy bias, meaning the first news source they read affects their overall belief on the issue. Because of this, they may construct their views on an issue around false information, and in discussions of that issue, may unintentionally spread misinformation. 

Political elites — politicians, newscasters, experts — are more likely to spread disinformation; they are more knowledgeable in a subject and they are more likely to have unadulterated access to the facts. If these facts do not align with their agenda, they may intentionally spread disinformation in an effort to achieve their goals. 

In an era of mass media and instant communication, political conspiracy theories proliferate because of misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation and disinformation are inherent to conspiracy theories because they allow people to rationalize their reactions to unwanted political events. This is done on both sides of the aisle, though a salient and ongoing example is the conspiracy theory that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. This view is founded on disinformation spread by some Republican elites, who lost political power, and misinformation spread by Republican voters who feel disenfranchised by a Biden presidency.

Political misinformation and disinformation have deadly effects on democracy. The 2020 election conspiracy radicalized some voters to assault the United States Capitol. This event is now known as the January 6th Insurrection and it resulted in at least seven deaths and dozens of mental and physical casualties. This event demonstrates the threats that misinformation and disinformation pose for contemporary democracy.

Jett Young was a Governance intern for ONC during the Fall 2021 semester. 


Cameron, C. (2022, January 5). These are the people who died in connection with the Capitol Riot. The New York Times. Retrieved March 16, 2022, from

Miller, J. M., Saunders, K. L., & Farhart, C. E. (2015). Conspiracy endorsement as motivated reasoning: The moderating roles of Political Knowledge and Trust. American Journal of Political Science, 60(4), 824–844.

 Misinformation and disinformation: Thinking critically about information sources: Definitions of terms. CSI Library. (November 16, 2021). Retrieved March 16, 2022, from

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