By Sarah Ninivaggi
We’re living in a misinformation age.
Political parties and governments are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on psychological operations and public opinion manipulation via social media. According to Oxford University research, last year there were disinformation campaigns in at least 48 countries — a significant jump from 28 countries in 2017, when the tracking began.
Who can we trust? It’s a question that’s on the minds of voters as we head into a contentious election year. Leaders are scrambllng to figure out how technology platforms like Facebook and Twitter became breeding grounds for faleshoods, and what they can do about it.
These crucial conversations are being led right here at UW at the recently-launched Center for an Informed Public (CIP) — and Comm Lead students and staff are playing a key role.
The CIP’s mission is to study and better understand the effects of misinformation on democracy, and to explore solutions to help address it. In July, the Center was awarded a $5 million grant from the Knight Foundation. The CIP held its official launch event at UW on December 3, announcing a partnership with Washington State University, and an upcoming statewide tour of town hall events to engage diverse populations on the issue.
Comm Lead’s Role
Comm Lead, led by co-director Hanson Hosein and Head of Creative Strategy Alex Stonehill, along with support from Associate Director Anita Verna Crofts, have been helping to develop the new center since early last year.
Comm Lead’s role goes beyond helping to marketing of the center using traditional means. To ensure CIP lives up to the mandate to be “embedded in local communities,” we’re tasked with developing unique approaches to public engagement.
“We see this effort as a public consultation,” said Hosein. “We want to hear from people so we can bring that back to the research. Our role is the bridge to the public.”
Because the Center is so closely aligned with some of Comm Lead’s core values, like responsibility and advocacy, and touches on the key issues facing communicators today, we’ve made it the focal point of our Partner Program this academic year.
Seven Comm Lead students — Lindsey Winter, Rodger Caudill, Haonan Wang, Kate Stone, Juancho Misa, Sarah Ninivaggi and Michael Sharon (through his video production company 6162 Productions) — have already supported the Center’s launch. Student teams developed a broad communication strategy for the center, designed the website, helped develop public events, and produced the flagship video. Five more students (Frost Keaton, Carissa Cress, Jacqueline Chang, Alexandra Rochester, and Felicia Klower) are joining the team for Winter quarter.
The launch video for the new Center for an Informed Public, produced by Comm Lead student Michael Sharon and 6162 Productions.
Toward a Better Understanding Misinformation
There are five researchers leading the center’s work and research from different UW units. These industry experts have worked on everything from how misinformation spreads during a crisis, to public policy solutions.
- CIP Director and iSchool Associate Professor Jevin West teaches the popular undergrad course Calling BS. Currently, his research focuses on misinformation specifically in and about science.
- Ryan Calo is an Associate Professor in the School of Law and faculty co-director of the Tech Policy Lab, an interdisciplinary research unit that spans law, computer science, and information science.
- Chris Coward is a Senior Principal Research Scientist at the iSchool and is the director of the Technology & Social Change Group. His current work examines misinformation and civic discourse.
- Emma Spiro is an Assistant Professor at the iSchool, and serves as a co-director of the Social Media Lab and the DataLab. Her work has focused on understanding information-related behaviors during crisis events.
- Kate Starbird is an Associate Professor in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering. She studies how information-communication technologies are used during crisis events, such as natural disasters.
Comm Lead student Lindsey Winter, who helped lead the work on the new CIP website, was inspired to get involved after seeing how the nature of public discourse today is impacting society — and even her own family, as a mom of teenagers. The issues are daunting to be sure, especially for communicators.
“Everybody involved recognizes the gravity of the misinformation epidemic and the pressing need to contain it,” says Winter. But her experience with the center has made her feel more confident that there is a path forward.
“Amazingly, the researchers don’t seem overwhelmed by the enormity and complexity of solving this problem. It’s inspiring and leaves me a little hopeful.”
If you care about reestablishing trust in information, we need your help.
You’re invited to join a public conversation on misinformation on January 23 at Town Hall Seattle. Partnering with an innovative new conversation platform, Thoughtexchange, the event will go beyond a presentation of research findings, and will feature opportunities for attendees to engage and share questions, concerns, and specific areas where the center should focus its research. This event will be the first stop on the statewide series of public events across the state, with the next expected to be in Spokane in March.
The approach of leveraging of digital technology plus human networks to create an open forum for public dialogue exemplifies Comm Lead’s unique contribution to the center’s trust building efforts. Only by bringing people together online and offline can we find the common-ground solutions needed to address one of the biggest challenges to our democracy today.
From CommLead’s perspective, this is just the beginning of our work and partnership with the CIP.
“As technology is exacerbating the impact of disinformation, we have a narrow window of opportunity to get this right,” said Hanson. “The time is now for us to work on this with the CIP as communication leaders.”