‘You can fake anything on the internet’: Professors spend day teaching WA students to fight misinformation

Ninth graders had 45 minutes to navigate the disinformation maze. It was an “escape room,” a game where winning led to the detection of manipulated images and graphics, unreliable sources, and “deep fakes”—computer-generated video or audio that said things people never said.

Ballard High School students broke into teams, sifted through manila envelopes, hung them around the room, and dialed into their computers. “Anyone see mismatched earrings?” asked a teenager, looking for a clue in the strip of portraits. Other students scrutinized a video of a scientist announcing the brilliant research results of a popular wonder drug, and then another video of the same scientist proving the drug failed.

Some teams struggled. Others competed in each round of clues. But they understood what one young man expressed in his team’s post-run debriefing: “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 classrooms of 98 teachers and librarians across the state — will participate in the annual MisinfoDay event for middle and high schoolers raised in the wild. The University of Washington’s popular course, “Challenging in the Age of Big Data.”

The coming day could not have been more perfectly timed during Russia’s campaign of disinformation and disinformation (deliberate lies) about the war in Ukraine, which shows exactly why students and non-students alike should stay vigilant.

Jevin West, a UW professor who coded the original 2017 course and co-founded the university’s Center for an Informed Public two years later, said he was amazed that even Russian President Vladimir Putin could fool so many people with his program. country to the extent that they don’t realize a war is going on. “It’s very disturbing on many levels,” West said.

According to West, it also undermines an early, idealistic vision of the Internet as a place where information would be democratized, flowing freely in all directions. With autocratic leaders controlling information in Russia and elsewhere, he said, “we are moving in the opposite direction.”

In the United States, people are fighting over the truth and lies about COVID-19 and the hyperpartisan politics that have intensified under former President Donald Trump.

West and another UW professor, Carl Bergstrom, began designing their courses before these developments. Social media was the driving force, West explained, making it easy and cheap to share information or misinformation.

The Internet has promoted new technologies and techniques such as deep spoofing and fake fact-checking. As ProPublica has shown, this kind of fake fact-checking “exposes” bad information (such as a video of a bombing in Ukraine several years ago) that was not released in the first place to cast doubt on real information (current missile strikes). . Algorithms amplify influence in our social circles, convincing us that there is 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 investigations such as allegations of election fraud. Liz Crouse, then a UW graduate student in library science and a former school teacher and librarian, suggested creating curricula for middle and high school students.

Crouse said she knows many students aren’t taught how to evaluate online information because some of the skills are new. He pointed, for example, to “side reading,” which involves opening multiple windows to check sources as you read.

“We were teaching students to look for clues on the page,” he said.

Crouse became the MisinfoDay coordinator at the Center for an Informed Public and also co-founded the Teachers for an Informed Public group with Ballard High’s Lee, which 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 Seattle-area schools participating in workshops focused on fact-checking and confirmation bias—how we come to believe what we already believe to be true. The event went virtual and expanded with COVID.

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

Classes can do a treadmill workout — which Lee did in advance with three of his classes last week — and choose from seven pre-recorded video workshops, including “How to Tell If What You See Online Is True” and “Misinformation During a Global Pandemic.” .” While there’s no doubt that partisan politics has led to misinformation around COVID, West said much of it comes from “genuine, honest thoughts,” meaning people are trying to figure out what to do for their own health and that of their loved ones.

New this year, by popular demand, is a workshop called “How to Talk to Friends or Family Who Believe Misinformation.” A friends and family workshop requires an incredibly sensitive approach. Kate Starbird, a UW professor and co-founder of the center, said the first thing she asked herself was, “Is it worth sacrificing a relationship to solve this?” The answer may be no.

If you want to move forward, postdoctoral researcher Madeline Jalbert said it’s important to remember that changing someone’s beliefs is “really, really hard” and shouldn’t be your goal, at least in the initial conversation. Because algorithms have turned social media into echo chambers, she said, it’s useful just to let a friend or family member know there are other beliefs out there.

Other tips from the workshop: find common ground before jumping into points of disagreement, ask genuine questions to understand the other person’s beliefs and understand instead of questioning. you may be wrong. “We are all susceptible to spreading false information,” Starbird said.

According to the researchers, part of the reason for this empathetic approach is that sharing the facts will not change people’s minds. There are many things like emotions and relationships with others who share the same beliefs. Jalbert said people can simply forget a fact. Better yet, explain how the misinformation is being spread so that people can stay in more context.

Some teams struggled. Others competed in each round of clues. But they understood what one young man expressed in his team’s post-run debriefing: “You can fake anything on the Internet.”

So he and his colleagues walk a fine line, encouraging skepticism without undermining trust in credible sources and institutions.

Ballard High’s Lee is optimistic. The Internet is “a relatively new thing,” he said. “We’re still not far off…I think we can train our students to a place where they can function in this environment.”

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