‘Think more, share less’: Fake news researchers offer tips to avoid online manipulation

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Researchers from UW’s Center for an Informed Public. From left: Jevin West, Emma Spiro, Kate Starbird, Chris Coward, and Ryan Calo. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

There has been a robust debate over disinformation online since the 2016 U.S. presidential election showed the world how social media can be weaponized to push a political agenda. But much of the discussion has focused on the foreign actors who create fake news and the technology platforms that allow it to spread. Information experts say that leaves out a key player — us.

“We are all vulnerable and this is a participatory phenomenon,” said Emma Spiro, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Information School. “It relies on us.”

Spiro and her colleagues at the UW’s new Center for an Informed Public (CIP) discussed ways everyday people can arm themselves against online manipulation at a Town Hall event in Seattle this week. “Who Can We Trust? Technology’s Impact on Democracy” was the first in a series of events the research group plans to host to educate the public on disinformation ahead of the 2020 presidential election and beyond.

Related: Confronting the global ‘crisis’ of misinformation: Inside the UW’s new Center for an Informed Public

The researchers said there’s no easy way to inoculate yourself against fake news and misinformation — even they have been duped on occasion. But they suggested taking stock when a post elicits an emotional reaction.

“It gets us through the gut, and it gets us to feel outrage or anger at somebody else,” said Kate Starbird, associate professor at the UW School of Human Centered Design & Engineering. “It plays off of something that’s making us mad or sad or fearful. What we tell people to do is … step back and say, ‘why does someone want me to feel so bad right now?’”

CIP launched this fall thanks to funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The organization brings together a multidisciplinary team to better understand and address the ways that society gets its information in the technology age.

Last summer, The Knight Foundation announced it would award $50 million to create five centers focused on technology, democracy and information — including $5 million to the UW. CIP also has funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

CIP’s mission is to research the origins, spread, and effects of disinformation campaigns and to educate the public on the dangers of online deception. A recent poll found 59 percent of Americans surveyed think it is difficult to tell the difference between factual and misleading information and 55 percent think disinformation will be harder to identify in 2020 than it was in 2016.

The UW researchers’ advice to those concerned citizens is to think critically about the motives behind what they read online, notice when a piece of information reinforces their own beliefs, and fact-check news before sharing it with others.

As CIP Director Jevin West put it: “Think more, share less.”

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