Internet

‘You can fake anything on the internet’: Professors host day to teach WA students to combat misinformation

The ninth-graders had 45 minutes to work their way through a maze of misinformation. It was an “escape room,” a kind of game where winning entailed spotting manipulated images and charts, unreliable sources and “deep fakes” – computer-generated video or audio that has people saying things they never said.

The Ballard High School students, broken into teams, pored over materials pulled out of manila envelopes, posted around the room and called up on their computers. “Anybody see mismatched earrings?” asked one teen, looking for a telltale clue in a strip of portraits. Other students scrutinized a video of a supposed scientist announcing glowing study results of a reputed wonder drug, and then another video with the same scientist saying the drug proved a dismal failure.

Some teams struggled. Others raced through each round of clues. But they all seemed to get the point, expressed by one young man in his team’s post-escape discussion: “You can fake anything on the internet.”

On Tuesday, these students in teacher Shawn Lee’s World History class – and thousands of students in the classes of 98 teachers and librarians around the state – will participate in MisinfoDay, an annual event for middle- and high-schoolers that grew out of a wildly popular University of Washington course called “Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data.”

The day couldn’t be more perfectly timed, coming during Russia’s misinformation and disinformation (deliberate lies) campaign over the war in Ukraine that shows exactly why students and non-students alike have to stay alert.

Jevin West, a UW professor who codesigned the original 2017 course and two years later co-founded the university’s Center for an Informed Public, said even he was astounded by the way Russian President Vladimir Putin has been able to deceive vast numbers of people in his country to the extent that they don’t realize a war is going on. “That’s so concerning on so many levels,” West said.

It also punctures the early, idealistic view of the internet as a place where information would be democratized, flowing freely in all directions, West continued. With autocratic leaders in Russia and elsewhere controlling information, he said, “We’re moving in the opposite direction.”

In the US, people are fighting over truth and lies related to COVID-19 and hyperpartisan politics that intensified under former President Donald Trump.

West and fellow UW professor Carl Bergstrom started designing their course before these developments. Social media was the driving force, West explained, making information – or misinformation – easy and cheap to share.

The internet has propagated new technology and methods like deep fakes and fake fact-checking. As ProPublica has shown, such bogus fact-checking “exposes” bad data (such as a years-old video of a bombing in Ukraine) that was not circulated in the first place in order to sow doubt about real information (current missile strikes) . And algorithms amplify the effect in our social circles, making us believe there’s a consensus around questionable information.

After the class debuted and current events made its relevance clear, things moved quickly. The Center for an Informed Public launched and took on hot-button research, such as election fraud claims. Liz Crouse, who at the time was a UW master’s student in library science and a former schoolteacher and librarian, suggested creating curricula for middle- and high-school students.

Crouse said she knew many students weren’t being taught how to evaluate online information, largely because some skills are new. She pointed, for instance, to “lateral reading,” which involves opening up multiple windows to check sources as you read.

“We used to teach students to look on the page for clues,” she said.

Crouse became the MisinfoDay coordinator at the Center for an Informed Public and also founded, along with Lee of Ballard High, Teachers for an Informed Public, a group that meets monthly to discuss misinformation and efforts to combat it.

The first MisinfoDay took place on the UW campus, with more than 150 students from four schools in the Seattle area attending workshops focused on fact-checking and confirmation bias – how we tend to believe things that conform to what we already hold to be true. The event went virtual and expanded with COVID.

Tuesday’s MisinfoDay, co-hosted by the UW center and the communications college of Washington State University, involves 73 schools from various parts of the politically divided state. West said organizers have worked hard to keep the event nonpartisan.

Classes can do the escape room exercise – Lee did it with three of his classes last week in advance – and choose among seven prerecorded video workshops with titles including “How to Tell If What You Saw Online Is True” and “Misinformation During a Global Pandemic . ” While certainly partisan politics has infused misinformation around COVID, West said he has found much of it derives from “true, honest sense-making” – that is, people trying to figure out what to do for their health and that of loved ones.

New this year, by popular demand, is a workshop entitled “How to Talk With Friends or Family Who Believe Misinformation.” The friends and family workshop takes a surprisingly sensitive approach. The first thing UW professor and center co-founder Kate Starbird said she asks herself is: “Is it worth maybe sacrificing a relationship to try to address it?” The answer may be no.

If you want to go ahead, postdoctoral researcher Madeline Jalbert said, it’s important to remember that changing someone’s beliefs is “really, really difficult” and shouldn’t necessarily be your goal, at least in an initial conversation. Because algorithms turn social media into echo chambers, it’s helpful, she said, to merely let your friend or family member know that there are other beliefs out there.

Other tips from the workshop: find common ground before getting to points of disagreement, ask genuine questions to understand someone else’s beliefs rather than interrogating, and realize you could be wrong. “We’re all vulnerable to spreading false information,” Starbird said.

Part of the reason for this empathetic approach, the researchers said, is that spewing facts won’t change people’s minds. There’s too much involved, like emotions and ties to others who hold the same beliefs. Jalbert said people can also simply forget a fact. What’s better, she said, is to explain how misinformation spreads so that people have more context to hang onto.

Some teams struggled. Others raced through each round of clues. But they all seemed to get the point, expressed by one young man in his team’s post-escape discussion: “You can fake anything on the internet.”

And so there’s a fine line he and his colleagues try to tread, encouraging skepticism without eroding trust in credible sources and institutions.

Ballard High’s Lee is optimistic. The internet is a “relatively new thing,” he said. “We’re not so far gone… I do think we can educate our students to a place where they can operate in this environment.”

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