We are bombarded by misinformation and downright lies. With just a click, they catch fire and spread through traditional and social media, from false rumors spread by the U.S. president to specious health claims about childhood shots and autism or GMOs.
And as fast as the allegations are debunked and their suspect origins revealed, new, more convincing deceptions emerge.
But what if there was a way to inoculate the public from the deceits and half truths, to provide us with weapons to stave off and challenge these lies?
That’s the goal of a new initiative launched this fall at the University of Washington. The UW’s Center for an Informed Public (CIP) is pulling together a multidisciplinary team to better understand and address the ways that society gets its information in the technology age.
Supporters of the effort warn that the flood of deception threatens our democracy.
He and others with the project draw a comparison to combating a health emergency, like the flu or a historic pandemic such as smallpox. In a health crisis, providers both treat those who are already infected and administer vaccinations to prevent the spread of the disease. It’s a response that is both reactionary and proactive. And it’s a strategy that can be applied to the fight against the current plague of untruths by refuting existing lies and curbing new falsehoods through education and public and corporate policy.
It’s going to be tough to stay a step ahead of targeted lies.
We don’t know “which kind of a misinformation campaign is going hit us this year, whether it’s an election or non-election [year],” West said. We don’t know “what kind of new technology is going to come along that’s going to make things travel even faster.”
Just this week, news outlets reported on a recent surge in the sharing of fake news on Facebook ahead of the 2020 elections. The international nonprofit Avaaz tracked the top 100 fact-checked, viral political fake news stories in 2019 and found that views and interactions with the stories spiked in the past three months to 86 million views, a three-fold increase over the previous three months.
The UW isn’t alone in tackling this massive challenge. In July, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced that it was awarding $50 million to create five centers focused on technology, democracy and information — including $5 million to the UW — and is funding seven existing initiatives. The center also has funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
“Our democracy is at an inflection point. Technology is fundamentally changing our society, yet we are flying blind. There is a need for innovative approaches that recognize the complexity of these challenges by joining computational sciences, social sciences and the humanities,” said Sam Gill, Knight vice president for communities and impact, in an announcement of the investments.
The UW’s CIP will pursue three areas of investigation:
- Where does misinformation start and how does it propagate?
- How is that misinformation converted into personal beliefs and then into actions?
- What sort of legal, policy actions are available to address the spread of misinformation and incentivize the right behavior?
While so-called yellow journalism and untruths are nothing new, their prevalence, ability to masquerade as the truth, and spread quickly are historically unparalleled.
“We can’t have the kind of productive, healing conversations we need to if we can’t get some handle on misinformation or disinformation,” said Ryan Calo, a UW law professor and one of the CIP’s leaders.
“It’s gotten to a point where there needs to be a systemic attempt to understand and combat it,” Calo said. “That is not a center’s responsibility alone. It’s a field responsibility. And so part of what we’re trying to do is to congeal a field around it.”
UW departments affiliated with the center include the iSchool, Human Centered Design & Engineering and the School of Law, with support from the Communication Leadership Program. The CIP is working with technology companies, educators, news media, government officials and libraries to better understand the problem and gather data. It will receive oversight from a board including non-university community members.
Before the launch of the center, the UW was already tackling misinformation:
- West and biology professor Carl Bergstrom created an undergraduate UW course titled Calling Bullshit; registration for the first class filled in one minute in March 2017. This year, the duo launched Whichfaceisreal.com, a tool that teaches users how to recognize fake photos.
- This past March, the university hosted its inaugural “MisinfoDay” where it welcomed high school students to campus to learn about the issue.
- UW researchers in partnership with the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in June released Grover, a model to study and detect fake news stories.
- Two years ago, UW scientists published research on an algorithm that can convert audio clips into a realistic, lip-synced video; they demonstrated the tool by creating a faked video of former President Barack Obama.
- In 2011, the UW formed the Social Media Lab (SoMe Lab) to study social media platforms.
A key objective of the new initiative is to keep it nonpartisan. That means the researchers will call out conservative media outlets that promote falsehoods, as well as highlight erroneous information from the progressive side of the political spectrum.
The CIP is interested in exploring how different communities consume and share information. West, who comes from a small town in Idaho, is submitting a grant that would allow him to partner with rural communities through their libraries to better understand online use, values and beliefs in those areas.
Experts outside the UW are eager for the university to ramp up its efforts.
“I’m happy to hear this great news for my colleagues at the University of Washington, and expect we will collaborate on informative new work that strengthens our understanding of democratic practice in a digital age,” said Sareeta Amrute, director of research for the nonprofit Data & Society, which also received Knight Foundation funding, by email.
Mathew Ingram, chief digital writer at Columbia Journalism Review, regularly covers the role of technology and misinformation. In the media, there’s a lot of attention on Russian trolls or someone in Macedonia making fake news pages, he said, or on Facebook and its role in the problem. That puts the bulk of the blame on external forces, and overlooks a key player that he hopes researchers will further explore.
“The millions of people who share fake news on Facebook are like you and I. They’re normal people,” he said. “That is the part we don’t spend enough time talking about — why do we do that.”
Emma Spiro, another of the UW center’s leaders and an iSchool assistant professor, will be tackling these issues. For years she has studied the ways that people use social media and how that ties into events and news. She believes a multidisciplinary team is essential given the scope of the problem.
“We’re going to have to chip away at this problem from many different directions and many different perspectives,” Spiro said.
“It does kind of feel like it’s such a complex, interconnected, socio-technical system that it’s going to be really hard to get any sort of big groundbreaking change,” she said, “unless you really get all of those people on board.”
Learn more: The UW’s Center for an Informed Public is hosting an event at Seattle’s Town Hall in January 2020. Check its site for more information.