Disclaimer: This dictionary term is meant to act as a red-blue translator to help you understand how people of different political stripes use, think, or feel about the same word or phrase. The Red Blue Dictionary is not meant to provide a concrete, final definition of hot-button words, but rather, to help people to better understand one another.

Although this term is often presented as having an obvious and clear definition (false information shared intentionally to deceive or manipulate), within our partisan atmosphere today the meaning of “disinformation” is far from obvious. That’s because, similar to words like “fanaticism” and “extremism,” this word and its sister terms “misinformation” (false information shared accidentally) and “fake news” (journalism or information that either deliberately or unintentionally misleads people) have been increasingly leveraged broadly against arguments or claims that one side sees as concerning or untrue - even used as a tool to silence differences of opinion, especially those that challenge prevailing, elite views.

For instance, perspectives contrary to the prevailing public health narrative of COVID-19 have frequently been labeled as “disinformation” and dismissed out of hand. Rather than just inviting public scrutiny, the label can carry serious weight — and can involve real, practical consequences, including warning labels or outright bans being levied on social media.

Of course, there are many real instances of disinformation — reflected in Russian and Chinese campaigns to stoke up dissent in America, along with internal purveyors of intentionally false story-lines that generate views for a particular cause or organization. That includes people who purposely share false or misleading information in an attempt to persuade people to vote for someone, buy something, or otherwise alter their behavior. What differentiates between this kind of legitimate disinformation, and information people dislike or contest (and may prefer to see silenced), remains a challenging and disputed question.