From the Founder

From the Founder: Information, Misinformation, Disinformation

At Planet Word we’ve recently put the final touches on a new “beacon,” the digital stations where visitors can dive deeper into subjects covered in the museum’s galleries.  We’ve got fun, voice-activated beacons about how to tell a joke, forensic linguistics, product naming, and taboo language; we’ve got fascinating beacons that explore whether animals have language, or how languages become endangered, or how languages are constructed for movies and books.

Our newest beacon, which will be ready for visitors to experience in the next few days, is about news literacy.  With help from our friends at the News Literacy Project (www.newslit.org), you can explore how to trust news that you hear or read: how to assess its sources, how to tell fact from opinion, and when to check out something that sounds too surprising to be believed.

You’ll learn how important it is to determine the motives behind why a misleading news story was written.  In the best case, a story might have been written with the best of intentions, but it is just plain wrong.  That means the story relayed misinformation, probably unwittingly and innocently.  A high-quality news outfit, though – whether television or print or online – will run a correction once it realizes it’s made a mistake.

By contrast, some news is meant to misinform – the intent is to mislead or deceive: disinformation.  Governments sometimes wage disinformation campaigns – think back to Soviet disinformation campaigns during the Cold War.  Corrupt politicians may spread disinformation about their rivals, hoping that reputational damage is done before their targets can prove the stories are incorrect.

Misinformation is regrettable, but disinformation is reprehensible.  The difference made by those two short prefixes – mis- and dis- – is huge.

In fact, it can make a difference between life and death, as we’re discovering right now, sadly.

At Planet Word, we stand for using words to tell the truth.  But we’re not so naïve to think they always will be used that way, so we also want every visitor to be aware of how words can be manipulated and twisted. Bottom line: We want people to pay attention to words – to their words and those of others – and to call out misused words and misinformation.

We must challenge assumptions; question motives; be critical thinkers; notice the little nuances: dis-/mis-.

This has never been more obvious than right now, when disinformation about the safety and efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines is threatening the health of us all. The mutated virus is spreading through the unvaccinated population once again, overloading hospitals once again, and bringing untold misery to thousands once again. But just this week, the Institute of Museum and Library Services joined forces with the American Alliance of Museums and the American Library Association to work to provide communities with resources about Covid-19 and vaccination and enhance vaccine confidence. Museums are among the most trusted institutions in America, so we want to use our good reputation to tackle the most challenging issue of the day: encouraging everyone that it’s safe and important to get vaccinated.

There is only one antidote to the contagion of misinformation that is swirling around us: educating ourselves by reading and listening to a wide variety of dependable, neutral, fact-based news sources.  Museums, including Planet Word, have an important role to play. Our lives and livelihoods depend upon it.

In related news, this August 5, 2021 article in the Washington Post may be of interest.

—Ann Friedman, founder, Planet Word