More Of This…

I don’t know about all of you, but I get positively desperate for good news. The American political landscape is so bleak–every day, it seems there is a new report of really egregious wrongdoing: trashing the environment, screwing over students and public education, kicking hungry children off food stamps,  the President’s corruption and conflicts of interest…the list is endless, and it’s all aided and abetted by the propaganda that litters the Internet.

As we head into 2020, the effectiveness of that propaganda has been enhanced by “deep fakes”–doctored photographs that look so real the distortions are difficult to detect.

Rather than sighing and wondering how effective this new method of disinformation will prove to be, Governing Magazine reports that a couple of universities are doing something about it.

If you were under any illusion that online hooey peaked with the 2016 election, brace yourself for the era of “deepfakes” — fabricated videos so realistic they can put words in the mouths of politicians or anyone else that they never said.

As the 2020 election approaches, a new University of Washington initiative aims to combat the wave of increasingly sophisticated digital counterfeiting and misinformation coursing through social media and give the public tools to sort fact from fakery.

The Center for an Informed Public (CIP) has been seeded with $5 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, part of a $50 million round of grants awarded this year to 11 U.S. universities and research institutions to study how technology is transforming democracy.

The mission is to use the new research to help everyone vulnerable to being fooled by online manipulation — whether it’s schoolkids unsure about which news sites are trustworthy or baby boomers uncritically sharing fraudulent news stories on Facebook.

Kate Starbird is a UW associate professor and one of the CIP’s principal researchers. She has spent years studying the spread of conspiracy theories and deliberate misinformation in the wake of crisis events like school shootings and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and she says this is “not a K-12 problem. It’s a K-99 problem.”

Starbird and other researchers have examined millions of tweets and discovered how various actors, including foreign intelligence operatives, have worked to intensify political divisions in America.

In 2016, for example, Twitter accounts associated with Russia’s Internet Research Agency impersonated activists supportive and critical of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Tweets from those accounts became some of the most widely shared. “Russian agents did not create political division in the United States, but they were working to encourage it,” Starbird recounted in a Medium post about the research.

Fighting the bots and trolls and pervasive propaganda is essential–but it won’t be easy.

The CIP grew in part out of the UW’s popular course, “Calling BS in the Age of Big Data,” created two years ago by West and biology professor Carl Bergstrom. The course is in such demand that its 160 seats filled within one minute of registration opening this quarter, West said.

Sam Gill, who leads community and national initiatives for the Knight Foundation, said he sees the new UW center as “sort of like the first public health school in the country for the Internet.”

The link between quality information and public health is not merely metaphorical, as Internet-fueled misconceptions about vaccines have contributed to outbreaks of measles and other diseases once thought eradicated. An ongoing measles outbreak in Samoa has killed 50 children.

Similarly, misinformation has made it harder for the U.S. to combat climate change, which scientists predict will wreak havoc in the coming decades unless big cuts are made in greenhouse-gas emissions. Emma Spiro, an assistant professor in the Information School and another CIP researcher, said there is already talk of collaboration with the UW’s EarthLab research institute to address climate knowledge.

I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that there is a war being fought between fact and deliberate fiction. We need new weapons in order to win that war.

I hope this very promising effort to create those weapons will be joined by many others.


  1. My mantra has always been: “Take nothing at face value.” It has served me well for many years. I am very much discouraged by the nonsense that crosses my social network and I really don’t expect to live long enough to see the solution, but I am hopeful that better things are to come.

  2. I will guarantee you, because the universities are doing the research, the knuckleheads will immediately poo poo it! And, it will be completely turned around that the universities are trying to conceal the truth, stupid is as stupid does!

  3. There are more than bots and Russians involved. I was scrolling through tv channels last night in search of something interesting. For some reason, I happen to pause on the 700 Club. I listened long enough to hear Pat Robertson (I’m pretty sure even he doesn’t believe his own bullshit) telling his followers about how tectonic plates move around and result in earthquakes – all perfectly natural. He then goes on that the high winds and storms we are experiencing are the earth’s ways of dissipating heat, again all perfectly natural. He concludes by saying that there is no evidence that earth’s climate is changing. Why can’t he stick to taking social security money from poor seniors and stay out of science and politics?

  4. I’m glad she the professor corrected herself about Russia’s sowing socially divisive seeds in the USA. Those seeds were planted long before our country was even formed, and we have a POTUS’s administration who pushes those buttons daily. Blaming Russia for our discord is propaganda.

    As for addressing the use of propaganda in this country, UW will need much more than $5 million in seed money.

    I’ve kept a diverse social network intentionally so I can witness what is spread by the right-wing. I get the impression that if it’s a meme on the internet, it must be factual. That was the same mantra with newspapers and television broadcasts. “If it’s in the newspaper or on TV, it must be factual.”

    Every time I post an article critical of Trump, there are always right-wingers claiming “fake news.”

    Even articles where Trump’s own words are used against him…like internet bullying a 16-year-old with Asbergers on Twitter. “Fake news!”

    UW might get more bang for their $5 million if they spend their time and energy clarifying what’s NOT propaganda in the USA. 😉

    That list would be much smaller…

  5. The old adage of believing nothing you hear and half of what you see can now be corrected to believe neither, using common sense as the arbiter of truth. We are all becoming Winston Smiths. Some of my tweets have drawn rebukes from who knows who but which on close examination I have identified and disregarded. Perhaps our technological abilities have outrun our quest for truth (see Trump) and rendered such search old fashioned and out dated, as in, why should the University of Washington or any other university be in charge of ascerrtaining truth among us? The list goes on; we seem to want to resist all authority out of fear of its authenticity. What to do? Stay the course. Use our technological abilities to countervail their anti-social use. How? I’m not sure as such is beyond my pay grade, but in the meantime, let’s elect Democrats with a view toward learning how.

  6. Propaganda has been in existence since ancient times. Back then some leader was celebrated in stone, marble or a parade as a conqueror and bringer of peace and prosperity. The early version of guns and butter.

    The invention of the printing press allowed eventually for the widespread distribution of books and pamphlets.

    In 1918 US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson is purported to have said: The first casualty when war comes is truth. The true origin may be in the edition of “The Idler” magazine from 11/11/1758 which says “…among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.”

    Our social internet is not the first time truth is a casualty. The internet has permitted the large scale distribution of lies, deceptions and outright propaganda. With President Agent Orange he is unencumbered by Truth in Packaging or Truth in Labeling. The most fantastic claims and statements are given the same respect by his followers as Newton’s or Einstein’s Laws.

    President Agent Orange’s most rabid followers including Pastor Pence are adherents of Supernatural Bronze Mythology A/K/A The Bible. If you can believe in a young earth, miracles, burning bushes, Noah’s Ark, devils and angels – You can believe President Agent Orange is the “Chosen One”.

  7. imagine j goebbels in fact check? thanks UW, sweden has already implemenetd such a course,in elementary school. seems the ticket should be a course in civics,if devos is so up,to it. im down in texas as i write, makes me feel bad the guy im working with hasnt a clue,nor will he listen.ill save the rant,hes beyond help…I past a burma shave style,( with a hillbilly slant) on a field fence north of el campo tx,(hwy71). he feels the demos medicare plan,is nuts…..i guess 500k in medical related bankruptcies last year cant be all wrong. id bet that $ 400 if he needed by him/her,would probably bankrupt them too..excuse me for being cynical, but that fence said it all….

  8. More to the point in actual news: Wisconsin and Georgia are eliminating hundreds of thousands of voters from registration rolls. Oh, and the names being cut are mostly from Democratic voting districts. Anyone see fake news there?

    The only thing fake is Republicans saying they’re trying to govern for the people.

  9. prop·a·gan·da; /ˌpräpəˈɡandə/,

    1. information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.

    2. a committee of cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church responsible for foreign missions, founded in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV.


    Absolutely, we have to use the spirit of a sound mind. There is enough information out there to make an informed decision or opinion. It doesn’t matter if a person is a Democrat or Republican or Independent or Martian, we can recognize a ring of truth if we have the desire to know the truth. If we have preconceived notions based on what we desire as a reality, the truth and reality will be what we make it and not what it is. You can see, that religious organizations with extreme power, power that was ceded to them by the Roman Empire, is steeped in propaganda. Not truth, but propaganda as in the 2nd definition of propaganda.

    Today’s clergy cling to traditions and creeds that void biblical teaching. The scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees added their oral traditions to the Mosaic law. This is no different than today’s Christian leaders. Jesus Christ said; “you have made the word of God invalid because of your tradition. You hypocrites, Isaiah aptly prophesied about you, when he said: “this people honors me with their lips, yet their hearts are far removed from me. It is in vain that they keep paying respect to me, because they teach commands of men as doctrines.”” (Matthew 15:6-9)

    The Bible is the world’s most circulated book, people open it to a specific Scripture and display it prominently in their homes, there are many Bibles in museums across the globe, many died trying to bring the Bible to the common man in their own language, so that the common man could read Scripture himself instead of having it interpreted from Latin by a priest. Church congregants had to trust the priest, they had to trust the church as being truthful, obviously, as we know by history, they were being misled.

    Despite the billions of copies the Bible to have been, or are in circulation, where many/most Christian organizations leadership, have publicly stated that the Bible is unscientific and contradictory and just a hodgepodge of legend and myth, all the while promoting their own views and personal opinions and beliefs, thereby voiding Scripture and blindly leading the blind into the pit.

    Because we were not present when many of these things happened in Scripture, we shouldn’t believe it? We shouldn’t have a level of faith?

    There are many who claim to believe in Scripture but manipulate that Scripture for their own personal gain, they conflate their own ideals and desires and opinions and misplaced beliefs as scriptural fact, which most people accept on face value by the so-called religious leaders. So they would rather, because these men are standing in front of them, rattling their jaws, conducting themselves hypocritically, believe them because they can see them? This is not truth, this is idol worship/idolatry.

    As far as the earth being created in Six 24-hour days, the Bible never inferred that, it says 6 creative days. The 6 creative days are and Epoch in time, and does not contradict the earth being eons old. It’s the same way as talking about, the good old days, or back in the day, not speaking about 24 hours but a period of time. Those who claim 24 hours, are definitely manipulating Scripture for their own personal ideals.


    As far as certain clergy calling Donald Trump, “the chosen one” just goes along with seizing the moment for spewing more hypocrisy. And if anyone else calls themselves the chosen one, as Donald Trump had, that’s a sign of self-aggrandizing narcissistic insanity.

    At a time when the earth was considered flat, or, resting on elephants standing on a giant turtle, or, inside of a crystal, or the center of the universe, Job states in the 26th chapter the 7th verse, “he stretches out the northern sky over empty space, spending the earth on nothing; he wraps up the waters in his clouds, so that the clouds do not burst under their weight.

    This was something that was not part of man’s understanding at that time, especially during the time of Job.

  10. Propaganda has been with us, but it isn’t the instance, it’s the magnitude of the effect. When one farmer dumped refuse into the river, it wasn’t a big deal; when an entire nation uses a river as a dump site (toxic and otherwise), it is major pollution — unchecked, a dead river with but a few (or no) microorganisms.

    So it is with propaganda – the sophistication and the magnitude of its spread are at a level that bring new dangers.

    My old sociology professor, Jesse Pitts, used to say that the purpose of college is to teach crap detection, nothing else. We need that at even younger ages now.

    Sheila – thanks for bringing this development to our attention – it gives me hope – small steps, but hopeful ones

  11. Len Farber – your prof was right – check out the book “Teaching As a Subversive Activity” which outlined the way…many years ago

  12. My old World Politics professor refused to call us human beings homo sapiens. He instead used the phrase homo saps. With the advent of Trump, I think he was on to something.

  13. I don’t “tweet”, am not on Instagram, and spend little time on Facebook. I am careful with what I watch on YouTube. I watch NPR and PBS because I think they try to be more objective. I don’t own a TV so I don’t get inundated with nasty political diatribes.

    Other than texting and making phone calls, I don’t much with my cell phone. I don’t feel the need.

    So I am pretty unplugged.

    With all the data mining that goes on and all the misinformation being generated, I think I will stay mostly unplugged.

  14. Lester – I forgot about that. I think I have that book on my shelf somewhere, but haven’t looked at it in years. I think it is time for a reread. Thanks!

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