2.5. Misinformation

In the last section, I wrote that the objective content of information results from the causes (and reasons) by which (and because of which) the information, i.e., the form or structure was produced. If so, that is, if an information always truly mirrors the “conditions at the source” [1], then the question arises how misinformation comes about. We further have defined ‘information’ as ‘form or structure’; forms and structures, however, are neither true nor false independently of an observer’s expectation and judgment. Forms and structures as such are simply how they are. How can we speak of misinformation on this premise? These are the questions this section is about.

Let us preliminarily define a misinformation (or an incorrect information) as an information that (a) shall result, or (b) that will probably result in a receiver to believe something which does not meet the facts. We presuppose that the receiver does not misunderstand the information because he lacks the knowledge required for correct understanding. Indeed, one can always say the receiver would have noticed the error or the fraud if he were wiser or more attentive, but despite of that, an error remains an error, and a fraud remains a fraud.

A clear example of misinformation is a lie, but let us first put the question of whether there are other kinds of misinformation besides deliberate deception. Assume, for example, I’m very myopic, thus it my happen that I think a brown cow standing far away from me in the meadow is a brown horse. That’s not a misunderstanding (I know the difference between brown cows and brown horses), but insufficient transmission of information. The cause, in this case, is the poor functioning of my eyes: The structure of the bundle of light waves reflected by the cow correctly arrived the eye, but the structure was not correctly transferred inside the eye and not distinctly mapped on the retinal, and by that, a part of the structure, that is, of the information got lost. The remaining information was insufficient, which resulted in an error in further processing, on the level of object recognition. It is therefore not a misunderstanding in the proper sense, that is, because of the receiver’s lacking contextual knowledge.

Errors in the transmission of information can be caused not only by a receiver’s deficits in perception or processing, but also by factors independent of a receiver, for example, by mist, noise, or disruption of radio transmission. In suchlike cases, information, i.e., form or structure gets lost, original differences and contrasts are reduced, order is garbled, mixed with other information, etc. – thus it is a distorted information independently of whether a receiver perceives it or not [2].

In perceptual deficits like myopia or deafness, by contrast, information loss is due to a malfunction in the receiving system. However, it is often difficult to clearly distinguish between an error due to insufficient information transfer and an error due to lacking contextual knowledge. If I had known that the owner of the meadow breeds cows only, but no horses, then I would have recognized the cow as a cow despite myopia. Obviously, three factors contribute to understanding or misunderstanding of information: (i) quality of incoming information, (ii) transmission and processing within the understanding system [3], and (iii) the system’s contextual knowledge.

Let us now look at cases of deliberate deception. A classical example is an impostor who, by means of attire, speech, and behavior purports to be another than he is. The cause of (the reason [4] for) generating these forms and structures of speech and behavior is the purpose of deception. The impostor knows and expects that the information he sends off are understood as signs in a certain way by potential receivers, with the crucial contextual precondition being that receivers do not know that it is a fraud. The misinformation here is therefore is false due to the cause of its generation: the purpose of deception. This fact is independent of whether receivers are deceived or not. A lie is a lie independently of whether someone believes it or not.

If people deceive other people, then they do this on the basis of a knowledge of the meaning of signs or codes (words, gestures, attire, behavior, etc.) within a community or between people in general. If, for example, soldiers paint a red cross on the roof of their arms depot, then they do so because they know (or hope) enemy pilots will regard the building as a hospital. We can now ask whether only humans are able to deceive each other. Seemingly not, as we can find camouflage and deception in the animal kingdom as well. The chameleon hides away by adapting its color to that of the environment. The hoverfly is ‘dressed’ as a wasp – it is, so to say, an impostor among insects. Other insects (Phylliidae) give the appearance of being a leaf to save themselves from predators.

Off course, we cannot assume that those animals deliberately send out misinformation. However, is that really misinformation? Is it not simply a fact that the hoverfly looks like a wasp? The insect is not responsible for that. The chameleon as well is not responsible for the fact that its color automatically adapts to the environment. We can also hardly allege that nature or evolution deliberately produce misinformation. On the other hand, we above defined misinformation as (b) information that will probably result in a receiver to believe something which does not meet the facts. Just this is the case with camouflage in the animal world: It makes a predator ‘believe’ that a potential prey is not a prey, but something inedible or a dangerous enemy. Or, as in the case of an ice bear well concealed in the snow, a potential prey ‘believes’ that it is out of danger.

We should therefore be able to explain misinformation in the animal kingdom by the conditions of its emergence, similarly as we did above with misinformation deliberately produced by humans. Let us first consider what camouflage is in terms of form or structure: to be indistinguishable, either from the environment (ice bear, chameleon) or from something which does not suit as a prey (hoverfly, walking leaf). If information is “a difference which makes a difference” (Gregory Bateson [5]), then camouflage is just about that, namely avoiding a difference, avoiding certain information.

As we have seen, camouflage in the animal world is the adaptation in terms of form and/or structure to either the environment or another living being or inanimate object. This adaptation of form or structure is a fact: the animal is disguised or concealed, independently of the animal itself or the fact of camouflage is perceived by another living being (camouflage works well just if it is not perceived).

Now, we easily realize that well camouflaged animals had better chances of survival on average as compared with their not as well camouflaged fellow species. So forms, structures, colors, behavior serving for camouflage may become prevalent in the course of the evolution, which does not mean that fraud is a purpose of nature. What we can see here is rather an effect of information, that is, an effect of forms and structures in the nature.

Camouflage in the animal world is an example of misinformation emerged without a purpose of deception. Likewise, information produced by humans can be incorrect without a purpose of deception, for example, somebody claim something wrong because he doesn’t know better. This objectively is a misinformation if it is likely to make a potential receiver believe something which does not meet the facts (I think we are able to distinguish between an error that is innocuous because it will be recognized as an error by almost everyone, and an error likely to result in serious misunderstanding [6]). If an information, a form or structure, has this property (this high potential to mislead), then this fact is independent of whether the false claim is perceived or believed by anyone. Again, the cause of misinformation is at the source; it is lacking knowledge of the producer of the information.

Thus we can summarize: The fact that misinformation exists is consistent with our assumption that information – as form or structure – exists independently of whether it is perceived or understood. The initial question of how misinformation can exist although forms and structures have no meaning and can therefore neither true or false can be answered as follows (considering the two cases in the above definition):

(a) When we say that something false is claimed in an information, then we refer to the semantic content. Semantics or meaning, however, plays a role only in the generation and in the understanding (interpretation) of a structure, e.g., a text or a verbal utterance. The structure as such has no meaning and can neither be true nor false [7]. When, therefore, ‘information’ is defined as form or structure, then ‘misinformation’ (in the sense of lie or fraud) can refer only to the generation of that form or structure.

(b) An information which is likely to make a receiver to believe something false is not false as a form or structure, but has the property to cause a receiver to err – a property in a causal-functional sense, that is, the property consists in the effects which can be caused by what this property has. (a stick of dynamite, for example, has the property of being explosive independently of whether it actually explodes). The capability to cause effects is a property of information, of form and structure in general. Misinformation of category b represents a special kind of such efficacy.


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  1. Fred Dretske: Precis of Knowledge and the Flow of Information. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 6 (1983), 55-63; p. 57. The complete citation reads: “One needs only to stipulate that the content of the signal, the information it carries, be expressed by a sentence describing the condition (at the source) on which the signal depends in some regular, lawful way.”  [⇑]
  2. Dretske’s premise of a “regular lawful way” (see citation in the first footnote) is not fulfilled here.  [⇑]
  3. One can argue: If the last and actual receiver of information is the mind, then there is no difference between loss of information in the transmission within the body (e.g., in the eye or ear) and outside the body (e.g., by mist or noise). That’s correct, but later I will defend the position that not the mind and even not the brain is the understanding system (the system capable of semantic processing), but the living organism as a whole.  [⇑]
  4. I do not equal causes and reasons. Causes are physical, reasons are mental. However, both together form the “conditions at the source” of information deliberately produced by humans (and perhaps by some animals). All other information have causes only.  [⇑]
  5. Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind, New York; p. 453.  [⇑]
  6. One may argue here that basically (with sufficient stupidity) every information can be misunderstood. Conversely, it can be claimed that a sufficiently wise receiver will correctly understand every information; he will recognize every error and see through every fraud. In fact, the receiver’s knowledge is crucial for the understanding of information. But if we say that the receiver is solely responsible for the understanding or misunderstanding of information, then neither liars nor deceivers. The receiver as well as the producer can be responsible for misinformation, and if solely or mainly the latter one is responsible, then we can say: It’s a misinformation independently of any receiver.  [⇑]
  7. How can a form or structure have a semantic content and, at the same time, have no semantic content? Remember Brentano’s peculiar speaking of the “intentional inexistence” of mental contents (Section 1.1). A German or English text (structure) has a semantic content for me because I understand these languages and are able to read, that is, I know the code the structure is to interpret with. By that, the structure has a meaning for me, and if it contains a semantic error, then I can say how to alter the structure (which characters must be substituted by others) to eliminate the error. I know the code, thus the structure is right or wrong for me, but it is neither right nor wrong independently of a receiver. who knows the code.  [⇑]

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