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From left to right: University Washington professors Ryan Calo; Kate Starbird; Jevin West; and Bill Howe speak at an event at Impact Hub in Seattle on Monday. (Photo courtesy of Priyanka Mhatre)

There is a fake news problem across the internet. The spreading of misinformation is having a direct affect on society, ranging from events like the 2016 presidential election or Hurricane Harvey, to less serious fake news like the apparent discontinuation of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Tech giants like Google and Facebook are scrambling to keep their platforms clear of false claims and stories.

But how can we as individuals separate what’s real and what’s not? And what is technology’s role?

Jevin West. Photo via UW.

That was the subject of discussion at an event hosted by the University of Washington this week featuring a panel with Jevin West, an assistant professor with the UW’s Information School who is co-teaching a class called “Calling Bulls**t.”

The popular course, which debuted earlier this year and is offered again this fall, aims to teach students “how to think critically about the data and models that constitute evidence in the social and natural sciences.” It’s not so much about having political discussions or other commentary related to potential fake news, but rather showing students how to debunk false claims.

The course has sparked similar classes at more than 50 schools across the globe. West and his colleague Carl Bergstrom hope that other instructors, particularly those teaching students in middle or high school — there is a less profane version of the class site — can also encourage conversation around this topic.

At Monday’s panel discussion, West talked about technology’s role in helping people easily create and spread fake news, and the effect it has online even after being debunked. He pointed to how fake news stories about the election last year outperformed real news on Facebook as an example.

“This crossover should be disturbing,” West noted.

The problem, West said, is that “technology is easily fooled.” He said anything that surfaces on a major search engine like Google or Bing carries a certain “truthiness” about it, regardless of its validity, and fact checkers can’t react in time before a false story spreads.

For example, West showed a search query for “do vaccinations cause shaken baby syndrome,” which produces websites related to this claim.

“Of course this sounds like a ridiculous story, and this was created by a couple different websites that talk about these things,” West said. “The medical community hasn’t caught up. There’s no antidote to this.”

West said fake stories and claims are even harder to debunk when associated with data, which gives a “clothing of authority,” he noted. The professor called out recent research that showed how artificial intelligence can guess someone’s sexual orientation; the study was covered by The Guardian, The Economist, and other media outlets.

West and his colleagues produced a case study that criticized the researchers’ conclusions and interpretation of their results. He noted that this type of analysis doesn’t require an understanding of complicated algorithms in order to pick out inaccuracies in data.

West noted efforts by companies like Google and Facebook to combat fake news. But he said it’s just as important, or even more so, for individual consumers to learn how to separate fact from fiction — and thus the inspiration for creating and teaching “Calling Bulls**t.”

West shared a few tips with the audience for how to combat misinformation and fake news:

  1. Think more, share less. “I love to encourage our students to think more and share less,” he said. “We don’t have time to read everything, but we are sharing too much.”
  2. Change the incentives. “We know there is lots of money to be made from fake news,” West said. He noted that some big corporations don’t like being attached to fake news that is embarrassing to their brand. That could help change incentives around fake news, he said.
  3. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. You don’t need a PhD in any field to ask three simple questions, West said. They are: Who is telling me this? How do they know it? And what’s in it for them?

You can access the class videos online; also check out case studies and the syllabus.

The panel discussion also featured three other UW professors — Kate Starbird, who researches how information spreads after a disaster; Ryan Calo, whose expertise is the intersection of law and tech; and Bill Howe, an associate director at the UW eScience Institute who studies the impact of data science.

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