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Combating Misformation and Disinformation on the Web: A Roundup
by
Posted On May 5, 2020
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The act of spreading misinformation and/or disinformation on the internet has been around since before the 2016 presidential election, but it was the campaign and its aftermath that ramped up public knowledge of so-called fake news. Here’s a 2-page sampling of NewsBreaks’ and Information Today’s coverage of this ongoing issue over the past several years. Click on each title for the link to the full article.

‘An Internet Pioneer Delivers an Orwellian Warning in a Timely New Book’
Reality Game talk with Samuel WoolleyOn March 24, 2020, Terry Ballard reported on an event for Samuel Woolley, who researches the effects of nationalized internet propaganda. Ballard writes:

Now [Woolley] has written a book about what has come before and the incredible new tools for rooting out the truth—programs that have yet to be rolled out. Earlier this year, PublicAffairs published his book, The Reality Game: How the Next Wave of Technology Will Break the Truth.

On Jan. 16, 2020, Woolley appeared at the Strand bookstore in New York City to discuss The Reality Game with The New York Times reporter Davey Alba, who was hired by the newspaper last year to cover disinformation. What is the difference between disinformation and misinformation? In a recent interview, Woolley said that misinformation is accidentally posting something wrong, but disinformation is posting something known to be false to further a political agenda. …

Woolley’s book lists a treasure trove of new technologies designed to make you believe that 2 + 2 = 5. AI, video fakery, and virtual reality are all covered in detail. Given the complexity of the subject and the myriad technologies in play, the heart of Woolley’s message is summed up in one paragraph on page 84: ‘Nearly all of the computational propaganda campaigns I’ve studied have been wielded quite bluntly. During events in which … political bots and disinformation played a key role—the Brexit referendum, the Trump-Clinton Contest in 2016, the Crimea Crisis—smart AI tools have played little to no role in manipulating political conversation. … Online communication during these events was altered by rudimentary bots that had been built simply to boost likes and follows, to spread links, to game trends, or to troll opposition.’ …

In his presentation and in the book, Woolley said that for every sinister program out there spreading computational propaganda, there are organizations sprouting up to uphold the truth—and democratic ideals. This was somewhat soothing for those of us who are cautiously pessimistic.


Credder: An Antidote to Fake News’

an example of the Credder ratings systemIn the October 2019 issue of Information Today, Barbie Keiser wrote the We the People column about Credder, a news-reviewing platform. She explains:

The Credder rating system is similar to that of Rotten Tomatoes—not surprising, as Patrick Lee, its co-founder, serves as an advisor to Credder. On the site, users see [a news] article’s headline, source, publication date, and number of words, as well as an estimated time it will take to read the article. Below the first few sentences, there is a Read More link. When users click it, they are taken to the news producer’s website, on which the full text is available.

Journalists act as the professional class of reviewers (Critic raters), who, along with registered news consumers (User raters), review each piece and indicate their level of trust at the article level. … If reviewers don’t trust an item, they must indicate why. Credder’s review form consists of a comment area and five buttons (Credible, Illogical, Biased, Mistake, Not Credible), each with subcategories to inform readers why the piece might be considered illogical (e.g., speculation or faulty analogy), biased (e.g., political agenda or financial incentive), to contain a mistake (e.g., misused term or factual error), or not credible (e.g., lack of reliable sources or website not credible).

So as not to skew the results, an article must have at least three reviews before a rating is calculated. The icons accompanying each rating are pieces of cheese, with those below 60% appearing as moldy cheese. On the whole, Credder reviews tend to be thoughtful, providing context for the more complex issues being covered. There are more than 5,000 registered users, plus 300 professional journalists acting as Critic raters. … Some are active participants, uploading articles and reviewing others they come across, but other users are more passive, merely using Credder for easy access to articles that are highly rated as trustworthy.


‘Supply and Demand: The Economy of Disinformation’

On Oct. 15, 2019, Dave Shumaker explored the two different ways that librarians and others have focused on combating fake news: “the ‘demand side’ of the problem—educating students and citizens to become more discerning consumers and less susceptible to being misled” and “the ‘supply side’—labeling trustworthy content and choking off the spread of falsehoods.” He writes:

There’s so much going on that it’s impossible to keep track of it all. One group that has tried, though, is the Certified Content Coalition. Its Calendar and List page features an array of resources—not only a calendar of events, but also a list of key reports from government and academic sources, lists of newsletters and Twitter accounts to follow, and published standards of journalistic practice. … But its centerpiece is a list of more than 100 initiatives that are underway, sponsored by government, industry, and nonprofit organizations. Some will be familiar to many librarians (e.g., Snopes and FactCheck.org), but others may not be (e.g., Data & Society’s Media Manipulation Initiative and Nobias). …

In another development, the Wilson Center recently held a half-day seminar, Decoding the Disinformation Problem, which combined a historical perspective with a discussion of current efforts to address the problem. A video of the proceedings is available at wilsoncenter.org/event/decoding-the-disinformation-problem. …

So what can we expect from the ongoing struggle for accurate, high-quality information in our society? First, there are many efforts to address the problem. … Second, disinformation will continue, with new tactics emerging as responses are developed to the old ones. Third, the leaders of supply side initiatives … all agree that addressing the demand side of educating consumers at all levels also has to be part of the response. And finally, if librarians want to be effective, we need to tailor our instruction to today’s disinformation environment and not rely on generic information literacy concepts of the past.


‘What It’s Like to Be a Journalist in 2018’

On Sept. 25, 2018, Nancy Herther dug into the dangers that journalists face while trying to do their jobs. She writes:

The number and degree of bitterness of social media’s vitriolic threats against journalists have increased tremendously in the past few years. ‘Most of the violence committed against journalists are not against the Washington press corps, they are against journalists working in the local communities,’ notes Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. ‘If someone has a beef with you, and you’re a local reporter, it can get ugly in a hurry, because you’re accessible.’ The June 2018 attack at the offices of the Capital Gazette, which left five people dead, is just one example of this escalating crisis. …

Today, we have not only the fourth estate (traditional media), but also a growing fifth estate composed of viewpoints presented by bloggers, independent journalists publishing in non-mainstream media outlets, and social media. People are able to get their ‘news’ from a broad variety of sources—some factual, some humorous, and some tragically twisted. We also have a president who has condemned news he doesn’t like as fake and who has made antagonistic remarks about the press a staple of his public speeches and tweets.

More than that is the president’s lack of leadership in supporting the very concept of the press as a vital component of a democracy that holds the government accountable to the people. …

On Twitter, the president comments on how a ‘large percentage’ of the media is the ‘enemy of the people.’ He calls journalists ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘driven insane by their Trump Derangement Syndrome.’ He refers to the press as ‘dangerous and sick’ and says it ‘can also cause [w]ar.’ …

Kent State University journalism professor Gretchen Dworznik is giving her students a new piece of advice these days: ‘[A]t this point, journalists need to work in pairs when entering into an area where they know the anti-press sentiment will be high. Anyone who has ever covered a tragedy of some sort has felt the stares and endured the vulture taunts from people who don’t think the press should be there, but it usually ends there. I think in the political arena, it’s different now. I can’t say for sure that it would end with just stares and taunts.’ …

Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism director Rasmus Kleis Nielsen notes that despite the challenges and threats, ‘there are some parts of journalism that truly are timeless. The missions and principles are enduring. The aspiration to find truth and report it. The first commitment of journalism is to the best obtainable version of the truth. I think that’s a timeless commitment.’


‘The Front Lines of the Battle Against Fake News’

a view of the Capitol Building from the NewseumOn Aug. 21, 2018, Dave Shumaker reported on MisinfoCon DC, held Aug. 6–7 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. He writes:

It brought together some 200 journalists, technologists, information scientists, and policy specialists to share insights and initiatives in an interactive format.

On both mornings, 10-minute ‘lightning presentations’ filled the agenda. There were 17 in all, each one either describing and analyzing the misinformation problem or presenting an initiative to address some aspect of it. Afternoons were devoted to breakout workshops, during which every participant contributed to lively discussion. A group report from each workshop was presented to the conference at the end of the day. …

Solutionism was a key theme discussed by the third lightning presentation speaker on the first day: Lisa-Maria Neudert (Oxford Internet Institute). In describing the depth and magnitude of the misinformation problem, she warned against the tendency to rush to do something—anything—without thinking it through. She termed this tendency solutionism, and she warned that it can make the problem worse. This proved a useful antidote to the inclination to consider any of the worthy initiatives and projects presented over the 2 days of the conference as ‘the solution’ to the problem. …

Filippo Menczer (Indiana University’s School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering) discussed the role of bots in promoting misinformation and his research in identifying stories that are being promoted on social media by bots. One research product that’s available to the public is Hoaxy, which uses an algorithm to characterize Twitter accounts as bots or humans and monitors the distribution of news to show whether content is being promoted by accounts that are likely bots. …

The Calling Bull: Data Reasoning in a Digital World curriculum was developed by Jevin West (University of Washington’s iSchool) and Carl Bergstrom (University of Washington’s biology department). The instructors assert that they began developing the course—which was initiated as a one-credit class in spring 2017—in 2015 and not as a reaction to the 2016 election. The course’s goals are to equip students to analyze information and identify false information and reasoning and to help them develop the skills to refute misinformation. Noting the challenges in ‘calling bull,’ they refer to Brandolini’s Law: ‘The amount of energy needed to refute [bull] is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.’


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Brandi Scardilli is the editor of NewsBreaks and Information Today.

Email Brandi Scardilli

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