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.