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How do you combat misinformation? CSU professor says it's a personal responsibility

People sit in a row at a subway station, all looking at smart phones.
Robin Worrall
Social media companies have drawn criticism for not doing enough to tamp down the spread of misinformation

Anyone with an internet connection these days can create false or misleading content that spreads like wildfire to reach millions of people. The rising flood of inflammatory rhetoric and false information is so concerning that the Department of Homeland Security recently announced the creation of a Disinformation Governance Board to combat it — a move that quickly prompted backlash from many Republicans, who compare it to the “Ministry of Truth” from George Orwell’s novel “1984.”

It’s an insidious issue that communities and local newsrooms in Northern Colorado are wrestling with, especially with the midterm elections less than six months away. Dominik Stecula studies the intersection of political communication and media. He’s an assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University. He’s part of a virtual panel discussing misinformation Thursday, May 12, 3 pm to 5 pm, hosted by the CSU Center for Public Deliberation, in partnership with the NoCo Deliberative Journalism Project.It’s free and open to the public.

Interview Highlights
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O'Toole: What is the impact of misinformation or disinformation on people's perceptions of topics like science or vaccines, to use a recent example? Is this persuasive? I mean, does it change people's minds?

Dominik Stecula: The reality is more complex than it frequently gets portrayed. We tend to have this belief that just because a piece of information exists out there, then it somehow has a super powerful effect on people out there. Actually, scholars have a name for it. It's called the "third person effect," and it's this idea that you yourself might not think that you would be persuaded by something, but other people are much more gullible than you, and they're definitely going to be persuaded. So I think it's a useful idea to understand when we think about the effects of these things, much like any other form of information, misinformation, disinformation matters. It plays a role in terms of shaping our attitudes, shaping our beliefs, and even shaping our actions, like whether to take the COVID vaccine, for example. But just because one is exposed to one particular false story or just because they listened to one questionable interview that somebody did with, like, Joe Rogan on his podcast, doesn't mean that persuaded them.

So we need to remember that there's a kind of supply and demand there. Some people want this kind of things, want this kind of content because they're predisposed to believe it — in the context of a pandemic, especially. The pandemic was, and still is, scary. And especially if you put yourself back in early 2020, February, March, when we were just trying to learn what's going on, exactly how it was going to impact us. Nobody really had all the answers, even the experts. Some people have a very strong psychological need to have simple answers, and they don't trust the kind of more complex, nuanced explanations. So, they're just more drawn to a particular set of answers that in that context tend to be the more harmful things.

So when we talk about misinformation and disinformation and its effect, we have to understand it through the prism of all of these different considerations, all of the different predispositions, that every user of the information environment brings to the table. And also the fact that, you know, sometimes just because you see one story, it's not going to do it. You need repeated exposure, just like with everything else. That doesn't necessarily happen with misinformation, right? You might see like a viral meme or tweet or whatever, that is a piece of disinformation. If that just a one-off thing, then it's unlikely to have made a huge impact on you. But if you're kind of bombarded with the same kind of theme of misinformation on a specific topic, then it's going to be much more likely to influence you because you just consumed a lot more. It's more of a top-of-mind consideration for you, and it's more likely to kind of make an impact on you.

I'm wondering how we can, as a community, address the impacts of misinformation while at the same time balancing freedom of speech, because that is also important.

I think that's a very difficult and obviously contentious issue to grapple with. I think the first thing that is worth remembering is that the fact that we have misinformation on these platforms is not necessarily a thing that leads to our democracy and our politics being more toxic, but the other way around.

When we think back to 2016 and we think back to Russian interference in the election and what the trolls from Russia were doing, they didn't create these divisions. They just poured gasoline on a fire.

So I think it's worth remembering that as we think about solutions, because there's certain steps we can take to address some of the concerns surrounding information disorder, but to really get to the bottom of the issue requires fixing our politics, which is a much more complex task.

So some of the things we can do — there's different layers. The first layer is what platforms can do, and platforms can design social media to slow us down so that we don't get into our partisan urges of sharing the most hyper partisan content. So little problems that pop up like, “Are you sure you want to share this before reading the article?” These things have been demonstrated to have an effect in randomized controlled trials. These things work. We have data to back it up and platforms are implementing them.

I think I'm skeptical of the government and post-moderation policies. I think even the most well-intentioned laws — like in Germany, there's a fake news law that passed in 2017. It had the best intentions of trying to eliminate misinformation and disinformation from platforms like Facebook. And essentially if platforms don’t remove certain things in a timely fashion, they face fines.

But these laws essentially have been very heavily criticized by the human rights groups, by freedom of speech groups that highlight how they definitely stifle speech. And they have been used as a blueprint by authoritarian regimes who essentially passed similar laws that are de-facto aimed at censoring pro-democracy voices in countries like Russia or Philippines.

I think that leaves us with what can we do as a citizens? And I think we are not helpless. I think the information environment is much more complex than it used to be. I study media and politics and I frequently see sources I've never seen before. There's definitely a lot of information out there. We're drowning in information. Some of it is good. Some of it is bad. There are tools that we can use to help us guide us towards better sources. So there's browser plug-ins, like Newsguard.

I think it's good to be aware of your own biases, knowing that we all come to the table with a certain set of beliefs. Getting outside of our comfort zone, having a balanced diet and when something seems kind of crazy or too good to be true, then it probably is. So triangulating, making sure you research something if something's particularly controversial or it strikes you as unlikely, it probably is.

A lot of our politics are toxic because they focus on national culture wars. But local news is still trusted and they still give you good information about your community. And using local news is just a good way to avoid the national level, polarizing things and focusing on things in your community that really matter to your life as well. Not to say that national politics doesn't matter. Obviously it does. But really focusing and going out of your way to consume reliable local news, it's a good first step.

Colorado Edition is hosted and produced by Erin O'Toole (@ErinOtoole1). Web was edited by digital operations manager Ashley Jefcoat.

The mission of Colorado Edition is to deepen understanding of life in Northern Colorado through authentic conversation and storytelling. It's available as a podcast on iTunesSpotifyGoogle PlayStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Colorado Edition is made possible with support from our KUNC members. Thank you!

Our theme music was composed by Colorado musicians Briana Harris and Johnny Burroughs. Other music in the show by Blue Dot Sessions.

As the host of KUNC’s new program and podcast In the NoCo, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. Northern Colorado is such a diverse and growing region, brimming with history, culture, music, education, civic engagement, and amazing outdoor recreation. I love finding the stories and voices that reflect what makes NoCo such an extraordinary place to live.