This editorial originally appeared in the Vancouver Columbian:
Ana Mari Cauce effectively sums up the issue.
“If we care about common goals — things like safe communities, justice, equal opportunity — we have to care also about facts, truth and accuracy,” the University of Washington president says. “Misinformation can be weaponized. It has been weaponized to divide us and to weaken us.”
Cauce uttered those words this month while announcing a joint effort from UW and Washington State University — the Center for an Informed Public. The center will bring together experts on technology, artificial intelligence, public policy and journalism to study, as Michael Caulfield of Washington State University Vancouver puts it, “the epidemiology of misinformation.”
Epidemiology, indeed. Because misinformation is a disease that has infected every facet of modern society, all too often turning The Information Age into The Misinformation Age. The spreading of falsehoods, either because of a simple mistake and more nefarious motivations, is increasingly having an impact on politics, health care, and American institutions.
For one example, consider the inaccurate information that has led to an anti-vaccine movement and contributed to a revival of measles in the United States. The “study” that initially linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism has been thoroughly discredited, and yet the disinformation lingers.
Undoubtedly, there is nothing new about inaccurate information or its influence on public behavior. It’s just that rumors that used to be shared at the water cooler can now be spread to hundreds or thousands of people with the click of a computer mouse.
As Emily Thorson, an author and political scientist at Syracuse University, told Vox.com in 2017: “Misinformation is most dangerous when it causes people to change their behavior. This is why medical misinformation is so concerning — it has direct effects on behavior. With political misinformation, the connection is much weaker, and that’s because preexisting political beliefs are so strong that almost no piece of information — true or false — will change how we vote. Our partisanship even shapes whether we are exposed to that misinformation in the first place.”
The manner in which misinformation can be “weaponized” was evident during the 2016 election. Numerous articles appeared from “newspapers” such as the “Baltimore Gazette” and “Denver Guardian.” Those publications do not exist, but that did not prevent Facebook users from sharing the links thousands of times.
That highlights the urgency of the work that is planned by the Center for an Informed Public. As center Director Jevin West said, “These disinformation campaigns are there to both misinform but also to add noise to the conversation and create bigger rifts.”
Organizers plan to hold a series of forums across the state next year, reaching out to communities to gauge how misinformation impacts them. While there is no way to prevent falsehoods from making their way into the marketplace of ideas — or to prevent critics from decrying the truth as “fake news” — there are methods for developing a more discerning audience.
As Thorson said: “Scholars have spent decades understanding how people process, understand, and use information. We have a lot of accumulated knowledge about this stuff. We can build interventions into the system. Is there a single magic bullet? No, but there are steps we can take to make a real difference.”
Those steps, ideally, will lead to a more informed public.