Podcast published date:
misinformation, information, expert, read, source, people, problematic, biases, evaluate, fake news, images, thinking, article, point, difficult, check, important, news, archives, content
SPEAKERS: Shawn Walker, Michael Simeone
Michael Simeone: Hello, and welcome to the first episode of Misinfo Weekly, a podcast by the Unit for Data Science and Analytics at Arizona State University Library. This is a podcast committed to understanding misinformation in our time. And we come back every week with a data driven perspective on current events in misinformation. My name is Michael Simeone, and I will be working with Shawn Walker. We're both faculty here at ASU. In this week's episode, we take a closer look at some of the most commonly given pieces of advice for spotting fake news and misinformation. And we try to provide a framework going forward for trying to decide should I believe what I read or should I share what I read? Shawn, how are you?
Shawn Walker: I'm doing okay. I'm just started trying to process a volume of information online in the last couple of weeks.
Michael Simeone: There's a lot going on online this week, it seems like.
Shawn Walker: Yes from Coronavirus, to protests, to elections worldwide. It's it's quite a deluge of information for folks to sort through.
Michael Simeone: This seems like as good a week as any to address the topic that we have for today, which is how to spot fake news. The format of our conversation is is a little bit structured. We have a worksheet about how to spot fake news that Shawn and I are going to go through. And point by point, we're going to talk about some of the more conventional ways of thinking about how to spot fake news. And our hope for this conversation is to think a little bit more on some of these points and think about how we can improve some of what we typically think about as defenses or mitigations for understanding fake news and misinformation. So, Shawn, I think the format that might work for us is going back and forth on some of these things. We have a list of about eight items that we'll go through. And I can go ahead and get started. How does that sound?
Shawn Walker: That sounds great. But I want to add a point here before we dive in. I think even just discussing this from the perspective of fake news, and it starts out on the wrong foot, because fake news implies that there's real news. And in a lot of these conversations there, it's not about fact or fiction, it's often about people's feelings or about framing or about a sort of a mixture of correct and factual information. But that's an slanted in the sort of misinformation realm. So I think that, you know, fake versus real isn't the conversation to have I think that it's a much wider conversation about framing and fact about fiction about timing. So I think if they can start us off on the wrong foot.
Michael Simeone: So fake or real doesn't really matter, but harm might be more important to think through that just fake or real?
Shawn Walker: Harm or problematic. Okay. I think might be a great phrase is is this information problematic? Do we need to sort of quarantine part of it, so to speak, or quarantine all of it? Versus is this whole thing fake? Is this whole thing real?
Michael Simeone: Right, got it. Okay. Yeah. And fake versus real seems like a pretty long, long debate in, in human history. So let's um, We'll get started. So launching off from the idea that the premise of fake news to begin with is a little is a little troubled. And so maybe it would be helpful instead to think about bad information or problematic information rather than fake news. Okay, so we'll launch from here, but the first piece of advice that typically gets given and maybe we should take just a quick aside, to think through, so called kind of information literacy training that people typically receive, right. So there's a history of information literacy training, yeah?
Shawn Walker: Yeah, so many folks may have received this training, and during their primary school days in high school days, depending on how old you are that, you know, there's some slight changes, but oftentimes, there's this training about if we look at information, you know, is this from a professional news source? Does this look professional? Are there high quality production values? Do you see multiple sources? So this is sort of the defense against misinformation, but that's become more problematic as social media has emerged, and as the cost of producing high quality content has gone down. So news organizations no longer have the monopoly on high quality production, either.
Michael Simeone: Yeah. And it seems that, you know, information literacy training seems like in us looking through these things that it kind of prepares you to go out there in the world and be an able evaluator. Some of the things we're going to talk about today, help us to understand that some of this stuff is really, really hard. And it may not be as easy as it seems on on surface value. Okay, so after that little bit of aside and context, then we can kind of launch forward. So the first thing that I want us to talk about then is the first piece of advice of what we can call kind of shorthand this kind of canonical information literacy training are these headlines from canonical information literacy training. So point number one, consider the source. You know, you want to be able to click away from the headline and understand the source of the information so understand the mission of the of the outlet and another venue and to investigate kind of what their context and what they're all about. Why could that be complicated when trying to understand misinformation or bad information?
Shawn Walker: So I guess one way is that it's fairly easy for nefarious actors to create sites that look very similar in the web address and the design to what you would consider to be like a mainstream media news outlet. So we can actually create sort of fake versions of news sites. So sometimes something may look legitimate, but it might be off by just a couple of letters or a couple words, or the design might look professional, but then it's embedded in some other website. So we can create sort of doppelgangers of these professional websites. And and then it becomes more problematic because a lot of our our news consumption comes out from outside of traditional mainstream media news organization. So it's circulated on social media, and it can be very difficult to figure out the source or figure out is this person legitimate or something that a friend shared? So Michael, you could share a new story and I could say, "Well, I trust Michael, of course. He done his due diligence. He works in the libraries, and he's a scholar, so you must know what he's doing." And then I might not do my own checking, and I consider you kind of a trustworthy source. And maybe you might have made a mistake.
Michael Simeone: Yeah, should never be considered a trustworthy source, that's for sure. But let's, it's almost as if some of these from what you're describing, it's almost as if they anticipate a certain kind of validation strategy from the reader. Right? So if I'm going to have a high production value site, and it's going to look really nice, I have anticipated that someone is looking for high production value as a way to validate my credibility. You know, we're almost in some of these sources are actually inviting the reader to consider the source. They're inviting a little bit of scrutiny. They're inviting that you actually evaluate them on some of these more conventional ways that we understand legitimacy online, which is, does this look like it's slapped together with duct tape and more and more, it's easier to make a source look like it's very polished, very professional, and then therefore credible.
Shawn Walker: Well that can also be a problem, especially in the political campaigns realm. Because we have a lot of organizations with really, you know, sort of puppy dog and rainbow kind of names that sound that they really are harmless or that they want to help the world, the environment. And these sites are professional, their mission sound wonderful, but their goals are kind of nefarious to kind of spread confusion and send out misinformation. So and it's so easy now to create a professional website, you know, go online, put in your credit card, boom, you now have something that was designed by something that was you know, as a professional. So yeah, this just the source can be sort of so confusing. Whenever you know, this, this consider the source was designed when we had this sort of very small group of gatekeepers in mainstream media and professionals that it was really easy to go, "Oh, is this a New York Times or is this you know, the Wall Street Journal? Is this not?"
Michael Simeone: Yeah, what's RT.com? I've never heard of them. They look credible. So full disclosure, Sean and I have worked together in the past and work together now on a number of different projects and collaborations. One of the things that comes up in some of our work is rt.com, which is shorthand for Russia today.com, which is a kind of US-facing outlet of Russian state sponsored media. It is a very charismatic venue, the production value is really high, it looks really credible, they have a lot of really interesting content that ranges from video to sound to text. They try really hard to look like a credible news site that could be appear to some other kinds of large scale journalism outfit like Washington Post or New York Times or etc, etc. So rt.com is an example of a very confounding specimen, where if you were to click through and try to figure out who they are, you would have to dig pretty deep to find out that they're actually associated with Russia. RT.com ends up being used as a shorthand for everything they'll say RT before Russia nine times out of 10. And you know, we've in our, in our own research, have seen folks who you would not expect, like they think the same way you would not expect certain people to retweet, state sponsored Russian propaganda. See them retweeting RT content in droves because they don't know that rt.com is actually a Russian media outlet. So consider the source seems like it preys upon some of our expectations and our optics, it anticipates this particular strategy. Certain misinformation outlets anticipate that we'll try to consider the source and evaluate along certain criteria. Shawn, do you think that there's a way to safely consider a source or a more robust way to evaluate it? If the old way is, look at it? Does it look professional and high production value does that what's a better way to validate the source of information?
Shawn Walker: So I mean, one is to say, for example, it's a social media account. One of those is to scroll back into their history, just get an idea of what types of content they've posted in the past. This is sort of lighten up. Are there drastic changes, you know, they were posting about puppy dogs for six months, and now suddenly, they're posting about epidemiological information. Suddenly a little turn? Yeah. Yes. So is there a sudden sudden turn in that content to the list credentials, you know, follow their URLs or other social media accounts? The other is that there are published lists of legitimate mainstream media news outlets across the political spectrum. And to compare your list looks like you're looking at with some of these lists that have been published by legitimate organizations. And that can also be a helpful shorthand.
Michael Simeone: Yeah. And it also seems like as you mentioned, rather than feel like, you're going to evaluate the source about how credible it is to really start to see what the purpose is, instead, start to look at some of the other articles that get posted start to look at the way that they described themselves, get to know it, like it's a personality, rather than try to just understand Can I believe it or not? Because one is a little bit more difficult to do. If you understand the biases and tendencies of a particular outlet, then that makes it much easier to situate. Trying to decide if it's real or fake can actually be really complicated if, if they anticipate that that's what you're going for. We should move on. How about that? How about the next one?
Shawn Walker: Sure. So the next one is to read beyond. So this is the idea that headlines can be outrageous, and the idea that headlines are often click Even in mainstream media news outlets they want to draw in viewers, readers. And so the idea in this read beyond is that let's actually click on something before sharing it, read the entire article, digest it, and then make that decision.
Michael Simeone : Yeah, so on its face, this seems like good advice. And as someone who majored in English 100 years ago, I don't ever want to say that somebody shouldn't read something before before thinking through it. But I think what you're reading for is a really important consideration. So you shouldn't be reading for trying to just decide if you like it or not. So just reading more of the content isn't automatically going to make good stuff happen. This important thing to keep in mind: A) you're clicking on the clickbait headline, which, depending on what platform it's on, or who's hosting it might actually reward bad behavior. The other thing is, is you want to be reading if you have specific questions you want to be asking, like can what I'm reading be disproven? Do I want to believe this? What is my own orientation towards this material? These are important reflective questions to ask yourself when you read beyond. So I would say reading is generally a good thing. But reading alone isn't just going to bring you to truth through magical pixie dust.
Shawn Walker: Yes. And also reading as required for some of the other sort of tips that we're going to discuss in a minute too. And additionally, the headline though, you also want to kind of read beyond that picture. So it's not just a picture that is the idea of clickbait. It could also be.
Michael Simeone: A headline is kind of an old concept, right? Thumbnail image might be a new one.
Shawn Walker: Yeah so, you might, you know, whether you're sort of pro Trump or anti Trump, for example, there's a pro Trump kind of picture and you're like, yes, or there's anti Trump picture, then you're like, yes. Right, so that those images can get our sort of emotional juices flowing. And then somehow, we ended up sharing that 50 times before actually reading what the article said. And we're like, oh, no, right.
Michael Simeone: Yeah. And in general, I feel like if you're, if you're thinking about your brain and your beliefs, looking at images, that's a different entrance than reading comprehension. Right. And so want to be aware of the how influential images can be in all of this stuff. So reading is only one part of really trying to be a better evaluator and be more savvy about looking at images, and what those images might be associated with and if they might be manipulated or manipulating. Alright, let's go to the next lesson number three. So, advice piece number three is check the author, do a quick search on the author, and, you know, figure out their credibility. So what's the problem with searching for the author and their credibility?
Shawn Walker: So one of the issues can be a lot of problematic new sites will actually not include an author or the author will just be staff. So there's no there's no byline, or there's a generic byline. And then not all, you know, publishers are journalists that we can find online so that some of this can be really problematic to figure out the author. And sometimes those are signals, whether that's something's legitimate, but also sometimes it can take a really long time to try to find the right social media account for a specific author because, you know how many John Smith are there on Twitter?
Michael Simeone: Yeah. And I also feel like, um, you know, I, I really want to come back to this idea of staff. So I think it is a tendency that smaller organizations, or smaller outlets can have bylines by staff very frequently, I think we're customed, to seeing bylines and larger publications. It's not always the case. But I think, in surveying a lot of news sources in some of the work that we've done, it's not uncommon to see a smaller, lesser known outlet, have staff written there. And so you can find yourself very quickly up against some edge cases about trying to figure out do I know this publication, it seems legitimate, they also don't really seem to have their author information shared. And so just alone, having the idea that staff has published it rather than a certain author isn't an indication that is not trustworthy, but it does make it much harder to validate who wrote it, but you will find that at the kind of smaller outlets or less popular outlets you will find that to be the case. And that's not to say that the smaller outlets are less legitimate. It's just that oftentimes a really nice strategy is to make your misinformation source look like one of those smaller outfits that could be credible, but is a little bit smaller and might not walk, talk and act exactly like say the Washington Post. Let's go to let's go to the next one, then.
Shawn Walker: So the the fourth is supporting sources. So click on the links inside of the story determine if the information given actually supports the story. And the sources that are embedded inside of the story are actually legitimate. Because be difficult.
Michael Simeone: Yeah. I mean, how many? How many people do you think actually read the footnotes of an academic paper? Like really read them?
Shawn Walker: Very few sadly.
Michael Simeone: Yeah. People who are paid professionally to click on the links, so to speak, don't even click on the links a lot of times. So this one's a hard one. So evaluating the supporting sources seems like a great idea to me. We just don't ever want to underestimate the time cost. The other thing is how many links are enough to be a supporting source? If If I send one link and it's something that seems to make my point, is that sufficient? Maybe, maybe not?
Shawn Walker: Well, and we also have issues have tried, then you have to go through this whole evaluative process. So it's almost recursive, where you have to then evaluate all the supporting sources. So someone might link to an academic journal article in a peer reviewed journal like, you know, Nature or, you know, International Journal of Communication, for example, but then you have to read that article and then say, is that the point the article actually made? And that's another 16 pages of dense writing to then have to interpret or a whole book, they might reference a book, but if you haven't read that book, How do you know that's what that book said? So just citing a source doesn't necessarily mean that the source says that, and that's a legitimate citation. So this can require a whole bunch of effort. So it could be weeks to evaluate one article, if you want to read all the sources.
Michael Simeone: Yeah. Like we don't have unlimited resources to validate information, which is a choke point. I think that we keep coming back to on a lot of these different conversations. Let's, let's move on. So check the date. Reposting old news stories doesn't mean that they're relevant to now. What is checking the date get us and what are some complications with checking the date?
Shawn Walker: So we can have a lot of time travel from some of these news stories and social media posts. So there might be a headline that seems relevant today. But the headline was from two weeks ago, three weeks ago, or even years ago. So oftentimes we'll see this with, for example, people will dig up tweets that someone posted months or years ago, then they'll repost them. And because of the design of most social media platforms, if you click on it, it shows the current version of the profile, but then the sort of old texts of that tweet from three years ago, for example. And then someone's really angry because someone who wasn't in that position, so somebody who was a grad student said something that somebody who's a professor might not say, or someone who wasn't a politician, and who is now a politician, you know, as I said, something years ago that they wouldn't say now, if we don't evaluate that date, we don't realize, "Oh, they didn't say that today. They said that three or six years ago," and I mean, that doesn't mean some of this information cannot be relevant, but it can be really difficult. So I know in some of the work that we've done, and some data you have, looking at natural disasters, we might report accurate information, but that information was actually from That's true two weeks ago. So we're out of danger, but then by republishing it two weeks later, we sort of amp up that danger.
Michael Simeone: Yeah. So I think social media mixes a lot of this stuff up to the point where, you know, checking the date and time can actually tell you how reliable it could be. So it could be helpful, but there are times when it just gets all mixed up. But what I'm getting at is it can be very difficult information to track down if you're looking at a retweet or repost, that's different from looking at a newspaper article. If I look at a newspaper article, and it actually has a date that's terrific, but you know, RT to come back to RT.com, RT.com will actually change the content on its pages that report news without indicating that there was a change made. And so you might actually have a very fuzzy idea about when some of this stuff was actually published. A lot of times it's practice to mention if there's changes that are mentioned if anything has changed. Russia today will repost material and not give you that date information on purpose to make that older content look fresh and so the idea behind it of saying look reposting old stuff is suspicious Makes a lot of sense, it's just get used to the idea that that information about the original date might not be as accessible as we'd like.
Shawn Walker: And also, the visual information is embedded in many stories. They don't they might have a date, when the blog post was created, the the news article was created, for example, but the images that are embedded in there don't say, often this picture was taken today. It could have been a stock photo, it could have been a photo from a previous administration, it could be a photo from a different part of the world. So they could be talking about protests, but it could be from, you know, Occupy Wall Street in 2011 versus the protests that are happening today. So that's also really difficult to take that visual information and say, Is this the right city? Is this what's actually happening right now? Or is was this a picture that somebody grabbed and then just stuck in there because it fits with the overall narrative?
Michael Simeone: Yeah, this feels like a classic, a modern classic, right is that an old image ends up in a new news story. And again, the content in the story itself might not be misinforming, but that old image might be misinforming. So Like the example of images of hospitals, one image of a hospital ended up showing up with claim to being in New York and in Italy, and maybe in a couple other places. And to the best of my ability to figure out that this wasn't a nefarious thing, this was just reusing an image with not knowing exactly where it came from some of this stuff is and this is why it goes back to we don't want to talk about being fake or real, or nefarious or not nefarious. Sometimes it's deliberately fake, and it's nefarious. But sometimes there's just mistakes. And so tracking down when an image showed up, or where the image came from, is a lot more difficult than figuring out when a new story was published.
Shawn Walker: Yeah. Are you ready for the next one? Yeah, let's go. So the next one is, is it a joke? If it's too outlandish, it might be satire. So is this from the onion or is this not from the onion? Why might this be somewhat difficult to suss out?
Michael Simeone: I mean, in the decision tree of reading all information, it feels like is The Onion, is it Onion or not? Feels like a great first place to go. I don't know how much I want to say here about it being a joke. Now, I feel like that's pretty non controversial, that if it's too outlandish, and it might be satire that you really should consider it, sometimes our lives resemble satire. And that can make it a little bit more complicated. But in terms of the joke, like I, I'm not sure about that now, I think a more sophisticated approach to this is considered the genre of the article. Is it trying to be news? Is it trying to be an opinion? Is it trying to be polemic? You know, is it trying to be funny? Is it trying to get a rise out of you? So I think, you know, is it a joke or not? That's a great question to ask. But another thing to consider is, what is the genre or what is the mode of this writing, because that can help you kind of understand a what the authors or authors are really trying to accomplish. But it may also help you determine who wrote it in the sense that if it doesn't read like a news story, or it doesn't feel like a news story to you, and feels more like an opinion, but it's presented as news that is suspicious. It's not conclusive, but it's suspicious. So be aware of the genre, and then how that's presented.
Shawn Walker: I think that's an excellent expansion of this because it's not just jokes that are problematic, and is that many news outlets have opinion sections and letters to the editor. And those don't weigh those have different weight in their sort of basis. Hopefully, in fact, then news articles, pure news articles would so thinking of the genre, not just is this humorous or potentially a joke, but also, like you're saying, expanding that out is a great idea.
Michael Simeone: Yeah. So even, you know, coming across a Medium post, written by somebody who's not a nefarious actor, they might be trying to synthesize a bunch of information and just share it with you. But unless you understand, oh, okay, this is what's going on. This isn't this person's original research. All these charts and graphs that they're posting are actually other people's stuff. And they're just trying to tell a story. They didn't do all the research on their own. That's really subtle sometimes. But it's a very important thing to keep in mind about how credible you think something, something actually is that they might not be the primary source. Even though the way that they're presenting it, it makes them seem like they're the primary source of that information. So again, genre might matter and how sometimes stuff is pitched. Sometimes the news does read like satire, and I don't I don't think that's inescapable. But let's move on. We won't, we won't be dark for too long. Check your biases is the next one. Consider your own beliefs and consider how that could affect your judgment. What's complex about recommending that someone check their biases?
Shawn Walker: Often we're not really aware of our biases. So that takes a little bit of introspection. And we also have to consider our emotional state and all those things. So whenever we read something, do I feel that that might be true? And then do I react on that that might be a bit of a hint. But that's a lot to examine and kind of an exhausting process.
Michael Simeone: A lot of times when we think about biases, we think about political orientation, or we think about cognitive biases. And those are important things to keep in mind. Human beings tend to look for patterns, they tend to look for confirmation, they tend to privilege the most recent things that they hear political biases are all about these frames that we kind of understand the world. But it's also important to keep in mind that you know, what you want to see is a bias or will influence how receptive You are. So what you want And your values can influence how you receive a piece. And a lot of times we're not used to thinking about our values as biases, we're used to thinking about biases as the kind of dirt on the window. And if we just scrub it off, then we'll be fine. We can just see that information clearly. But it can be more productive to actually think about all of your thoughts as a mesh that this information flows through. And so the more aware you are of some of your thoughts, and what you want and your assumptions, it doesn't all have to be stigmatized by thinking about it as a bias. You just want to be aware about, you know, how you think and what you value and what you want. That's a huge piece about the kinds of information that how you read it and what you value.
Shawn Walker: I totally think that it's, I mean, that's sort of a difficult process too, but also what we're afraid of can be motivating. Are you afraid that this might happen and that it's often used as a call to action. So these headlines, these images, hook into our sort of hopes, our dreams, our fears, and what we've recently seen cognitive biases, also what we News reports on for example, can be part of that feed into those biases. As they say the news does not report on non burning building. So you might think there's a high frequency of something happening because the news media reports on that that's actually not true. Most of what the news media reports on are kind of one offs or rare occurrences sort of boring, everyday occurrences are happening a lot more often. Because, you know, we don't really report on those.
Michael Simeone: Yeah. And it also feels like I'm envisioning a check sheet that you hand to, you know, college freshmen that says, reflect on your deepest fears as a misinformation factsheet or misinformation kind of helping guide it just doesn't quite roll off the tongue as check your biases, right. But it is important to kind of reflect on your fears because because they motivate a lot about what you know. And we talked about this too, about making sure that you've got different containers or different gates that ideas go through before you before you believe them, believe them, right, that there's some ideas that you can kind of hold out there. And, you know, our our pending validation, you don't have to believe them all. Unfortunately, if you share something that kind of throws a wrench in the works of that whole contemplative process, right, so if I come across a piece of information, and I think that's interesting, maybe I'll spend a little bit more time validating that when I can, you know, that sounds great. But if I just click share or retweet, then all that goes out the window, that kind of short circuits, that entire process and it just kind of approves it for other people look at it, that might have a cascading effect, where then they'll do the same thing.
Shawn Walker: And we can learn a little bit from approach that many researchers take. Because we recognize that you know, all research has bias because all researchers have bias. So we can just unearth our biases and share those with folks to say, I might be biased about this, and be honest about that. But I think part of this information is important. So we can share that with others so that they can also give us feedback and maybe help point out maybe potential blind spots or things that we may have missed.
Michael Simeone: All right, so let's let's move to the to the last one.
Shawn Walker: Sure, so ask the experts. Ask a librarian, consult a fact checking website, consult an expert in this field. It seems easy. Is that something that might be problematic, Michael?
Michael Simeone: Yes, well, I think it might be. The tough thing is, it's tough to figure out where to start with this one. But what's the next like, what what in the world is an expert? So like you, and I don't mean that to be like overly, like picky or complicated. But when we're thinking about something like COVID-19, and we want to talk to an expert, who is an expert on COVID-19? Is it a nurse who is working in an ICU in New York? Is it a research physician in California? Is it a police or first responder? Who is an expert on COVID-19? You know, the short answer is, they're all experts on a different piece of that very complex problem. But matching the right expert to the right piece of the problem, again, can be challenging and time consuming.
Shawn Walker: And also our pedigrees don't necessarily mean that we're experts. So the two of us are both doctors, but we're not that kind of doctor and even, you know, medical doctors. They're not trained in medical research. So how do we evaluate all of this information that's coming out as we know this is the novel Coronavirus, meaning that we haven't seen this before. So we're learning as we go. And there's all of these journal articles that are being published, we see preprinted journal articles, which these preprints are basically initial copies of the article that haven't been reviewed by experts in the field yet.
Michael Simeone: There's lot of circulation of preprint articles about COVID-19. Right?
Shawn Walker: Right. And these haven't been evaluated. So some of these might stand through the evaluation process. And some changes may be made, or some of these might not make it through those gates, because there's some problems with the way they designed their study or –
Michael Simeone: And you're talking about peer review of journals, right? When you're talking about gates and evaluation, you mean those have to make it through scientific peer review, which means other professors or other researchers are going to read your work and evaluate it with the editor before publishing it.
Shawn Walker: Yes. Okay. Oh, oftentimes, we want as everyone has information to get out as soon as possible, because it takes many months to go through this very arduous review process, which is really important, but it takes a bit of time. So we have to understand these articles with that caveat, right. So some of these might be experts, but we don't know whether This information is accurate enough after it's gone through review. Also, when asked like in your COVID example, what aspect of COVID? Are we asking a question about? Is this question about the spread. And that might be something that an epidemiologist is required for. This might be something about viruses and how they mutate or how we find viruses. Well, that's going to be a religious, which again, that's different than a medical doctor. That's different than someone like us who studies social media and the spread of information. So expertise can be difficult to ferret out. And my Rolodex doesn't necessarily have a whole list of epidemiologists and biologists whenever I have a question about that, so.
Michael Simeone: I'm it's, you know, something about experts is also tough is that the more expert somebody is, oftentimes the less confident that person is in kind of just making blanket statements or, you know, there's some things that are gonna be really obvious, but you know, experts weigh all the time how the significance of a piece of evidence. And so an article can be published that says six people responded to a viral therapy and did very well but then people can have a debate about how representative or how promising that piece actually is it's it's more complex. I think also sometimes experts aren't available on certain things. So it can be difficult to navigate experts. Right. So if I don't know anything about medicine, how am I supposed to know the difference between a molecular biologist and a virologist and an epidemiologist? I, what do I do? And furthermore, sometimes experts aren't available. Right? So we're talking about the DC blackout hashtag, which was a misinformation event or a botnet kind of attacked people communicating about the protests, the George Floyd protests in DC at the beginning of the week. This is where we're taping this in early June. So this was at the beginning of June, some of the stuff has happened, but the misinformation event was a botnet promoting this idea that there had been a shutdown of all cellular services in a certain area of DC because it was part of some kind of big government crackdown against the protesters. There isn't an expert to necessarily go to and in fact, the group that was acting as the expert there was was the hacker group Anonymous. So the very complex situation where the expert and situation is Anonymous. And Anonymous isn't necessarily the most trustworthy source of information all the time. And so that puts you in a really difficult situation, if you're consuming this in real time. Now, after the fact you can get more information from from kind of local authorities. But at the time, it might be very difficult to find an expert.
Shawn Walker: And I guess just to say Anonymous is this hacker collective that sort of is like a quasi group, that's there's sort of leaderless, there are different members, we don't know who they actually are. And they sort of appear and disappear. And so it can be really difficult to understand that similar like social movements, often many social movements, there's not one specific person to go to like, okay, who is the expert on Black Lives Matter, who is the leader of that group? So we can ask what happened here today in Phoenix are in Washington, DC, it's this collective crowd that's come together with a whole host of different leaders for different areas. So figuring out who is that person and it's not like we can just go to our local library and and ask us to sort of help us sort all this out. They can be helpful, but you know, they don't have these answers, either.
Michael Simeone: Exactly. And you know that I think there's a number of different misinformation events that kind of tie a lot of these different things together the Plandemic video that came out with Dr. Mikovits as the kind of protagonist there, the DC blackout event, I think is another good one. Each of these are different kinds of events that really try or test each of these assumptions that we have just gone through about, you know, ways to approach you know, so called fake news. And so, you know, when you can't find an expert very readily or where it's difficult to do and where it's happening very quickly, and you can't evaluate your biases, you can't find supporting sources, then you have to go to other mechanisms to be able to figure out what to do and all this is more complicated because if you know something. Like if found out right, that was the fascinating thing about the DC blackout botnet, then as soon as they were kind of revealed as a botnet that (and I say "they." We're taking a really generous interpretation of subjects I guess if we want bots to be a they) but but that botnet right once it was kind of unmasked, started telling the truth. Started distributing like true information because they knew that because they were not trustworthy, that they could just tell the truth. And people would freak out because they would still just trust them because they thought that they were bots. So they could miss inform by telling the truth. And it made it a lot more complicated for people trying to sort through that situation.
Shawn Walker: And a lot of these actors that our goal is not to misinform, or tell the truth. Their goal is just to kind of seed confusion and chaos. So if you don't know where to turn for accurate information, you thought something was accurate, then you find that it wasn't accurate, then sort of just you know, your information environment and a certain degree could be your life ends up being in chaos. So it's similar to going to like fact checking sites that can be problematic, because that assumes that you trust fact checking sites. Some portion of the population they don't trust fact checking sites because they find them to be problematic, or you might be looking for information that hasn't been fact checked yet. So this isn't a simple solution to go. Alright, who's the expert? Not all of us can contact the Centers for Disease Control every time we have a question about Coronavirus. Or what we should do or someone makes a claim. And some of the fact checking sites, if you trust them might not a fact check that because they can only fact check a very small slice of what's circulating in our information environment, because fact checking requires so much effort for each piece of information to do all that research.
Michael Simeone: Yeah, the point you make about the end of misinformation, right. I think this is why we use the language of misinformation or problematic content or bad information, right, we've been using them roughly equivalently. We're not going to split hairs right now. But it's important because this is not a war between every piece of content you read about trying to outsmart it, about trying to determine if it's real or fake. That's not the game. The game is to erode your sense of truth in the long term, right? The game is to confuse you more than anything else. And so uncertainty and conflict are very important. Whether or not it's true or false is immaterial. And so thinking through how to work through this, that time cost of evaluating that information becomes very important.
Shawn Walker: And over time, it just continually happens so we can think about our our barrage of information that we receive every day. Going through this process and trying to sort out, you know, facts from fiction or problematic versus unproblematic information that makes us over time less resilient because we're tired. We're starting to have trust. So we're less resilient in our information environment, which causes a longer term problem.
Michael Simeone: Yeah. And resiliency is really based in this idea, right? The ability of a community to bounce back. There's a narrative component to resiliency, the stories we kind of tell ourselves about our recovery, or our bounce back from a hardship. You know, the DC blackout is an example where there were some images of there being fires in DC, and some of them were actual fires, and some of them were photoshopped fires. And the Photoshop fires were as tall as you know, monuments, and the other ones were more street level fires. But during the kind of misinformation event, they were intermixed with one another, and it was difficult to tell how big the fires actually were. And therefore, many people drew assumptions about how violent or out of hand the protests actually became. And so when people try to understand after the fact what happened in DC, there is confusion about what really happened, even though we know about net was was active, right? So finally disambiguating and figuring out what the overall what really happened, we need that for resilience. And it's harder to do with a misinformation campaign.
Shawn Walker: And we can have, you know, because different types of harm depending upon the type of event so we can think of during a natural disaster if someone is propagating misinformation. So even if you say, Michael, we'll just use you as an example, you say that, you know, we need to evacuate this area, everyone should go to this rally point at this school gym. Well, if that school gym is on fire, now we've sent someone to a dangerous place. And that may be because that someone told you and you don't mean to share misinformation. But we can because that type of harm. Again, we have political harm that's been caused by the protests are much more violent than they truly are, or different types of actors from the right and the left are involved when they're not and that causes all this political turmoil and causes a different type of harm. So not just going to a burning building, but then causes people to kind of think or feel a certain way which may cause them to vote or act in a different way or may cause some beliefs to react in a certain way, which kind of spiraled out of control?
Michael Simeone: Yeah. And I think that kind of brings us down to thinking about, you know, takeaways from a conversation like this, we've kind of gone through making more complex some of these things, which on their face seem very simple. But I think if we could kind of maybe distill this conversation down to a few points, you know, the one you just made seems important, which is what's the cost of me believing this? What are the possible implications of me believing this right? So back to your point of what are the different kinds of harm that could be caused seems like an important thing to reflect on when you're encountering information.
Shawn Walker: And also that we're going to make mistakes. So if we make a mistake, we share something that is an accurate or we might share something that is believed to be accurate at the time and then as we get more information about a situation or learn more about, for example, how the Coronavirus has spread, that information might be inaccurate now two weeks later, so we can correct that we want to be public about our correction. So instead of just deleting something that might be incorrect. Now, there might be misinformation. We also want to be public and say hey, I said this before, but actually that's incorrect. Here's the new information. That's correct. So then it doesn't just sort of disappear, we then bring the folks attention or our friends or colleagues or professional colleagues we bring to their attention. Oh, here's the corrected information, rather than letting that misinformation just sit there and sort of fester and continue to live on.
Michael Simeone: Yeah, deleting almost seems like a bad thing to do. So if we're talking about best practices, all of these fake news, pieces of advice are about how to be a good reader. But maybe reframing this to think about how to be a good information citizen. Be careful not to share too much. If you share something that's wrong, retract it. Don't delete it. You know, deleting has a has a cost, right? You should call out when you're wrong and normalize it, that it's okay to admit when you're wrong. But the other thing is that everyone's comments or debate, if somebody posts something on somebody's Facebook or on a Facebook page, and then there's a lengthy and vibrant debate afterward, trying to debunk or fact check that piece of misinformation. If that person deletes it, then the hours and hours of time of people spent trying to fact check and deliberate through this point and to help other people understand why it's not true, that all goes away too. And so, deleting also deletes the conversation related to it. And that conversation related to it can be very valuable.
Shawn Walker: So then we basically are sort of fact checking this whole, it could be, you know, this contents no longer available. And then there's a bunch of fact checks of content that's not available. Another option would be if something continues to recirculate, you could delete that content that screenshot it before, include that screenshot, and then sort of superimpose your correction over that screenshot. There are other options for that there's these gaps in our conversation that are caused by deletion can be really problematic. So then we can reference information from two days ago or eight days ago. So for example, the Georgia Department of Public Health produce some graphs that were confusing so the dates were out of order. So the graph actually look like Coronavirus cases are on a downslope, but if you put the dates in the correct order, and they actually were not. And when that was pointed out, the health department apologized, issued a correction really quickly deleted, find the deletion yet. And so the news articles that were That they reference, the current graph, which is corrected and all of the tweets that the Department of Public Health for the state of Georgia had tweeted out, those are all gone. So it's, it's almost impossible to find without a lot of sleuthing, it's impossible to find that graph. So it looks like these articles are from people who are really confused because like, no, that graph looks fine to me. But that's referencing something from a while ago, where all these corrections are linking to something that no longer exists.
Michael Simeone: Yeah, so for thinking about some helpful tips, learning what the Wayback Machine is by the Internet Archive seems like a helpful tool to find stuff that might have been deleted. The Wayback Machine is a kind of clone of the internet, if you will, like a time machine for the internet where you can actually visit different captures captured states of websites at certain times. And so if say a website for Department of Public Health posted one graph on Friday, and they deleted it by Monday, I can use the Wayback Machine to go back to Thursday or Friday to see if I can recover that image from the archive. The other thing though, is even if you don't go into the Internet Archive all the time, learn to screenshot stuff. Get in the habit of screenshotting things that you see. So social media posts are notoriously ephemeral. Nothing, even stuff like State Department's of Health, will eliminate material without any kind of notice or notification that it's been deleted. And so if you see something that's interesting to you, or that's controversial, screenshot it, that's a good habit to get into just to have your own archive of things that will help you make sense.
Shawn Walker: And we can use the Internet Archive is at archive.org, that they have a tool on their website called "save page now" where you can actually put in a web address, press a button, and then they'll archive that for you publicly. And there are other tools to make screenshots or a tool like web recorder, web recorder.io allows you to create your own personal web archives, so you can put in a web address and then it makes personal archives for you. So then you can reference that information over time. So that's a really good tip. But again, that can take a bit of time. It requires a lot of effort to create these archives of information for the stories, other kinds of things. So it can be kind of difficult.
Michael Simeone: Yeah, and a lot of ways you know all of this is making sure that you have a very fine filter. So it To speak of, of information, all the things that we've talked about in this conversation requires painstaking research reflection on kind of your own thinking patterns, validating sources, comparing to other kinds of archives sites scrolling through social media feeds, characterizing different sources. This is this is a lot of time, which is fine. It's just that the pace at which we consume information is oftentimes much faster than that. And so sometimes, if we want to think about another tip would be to think about your ratios. It is easy to binge on a bunch of information, but sometimes not as easy to remember, okay, how much time am I allowing to process this stuff? So if we make reading the social media and reading the news, the same as processing the news, then we run into all kinds of problems, because there's so much more coming in than we have capacity to filter. And so sharing and retweeting and reposting or whatever that should be something that's a post filter behavior, not a pre filter behavior. So a lot of times we think about those things as a pre filter behavior, we see it, it's interesting to us, we immediately want people to see it. We don't think about this as a chain of things that we might Go through as an evaluator, or as a good information citizen. And instead we just think about it. Do we like it? Or is it does it seem appealing or interesting to us. So again, we just got done talking about how complex this is. So we don't want to just pretend that these quick tips are going to fix everything. But at the same time, we don't want to confuse reading the article or the social media posts for the first time. That's not the same as thinking through it a little bit. And you have to give yourself time to think through it.
Shawn Walker: And I think your filters should become finer if you're going to share something. So you've gone through and more scrutiny than something that you're like, Hmm, this is interesting article, I've read this. Now I move on to the next one, before you hit that share button or retweet button, or are such, that you want to try to go through a bit of this process to evaluate it before you send this to others because people are going to look at who you are, in addition to the information that you're spreading and sharing with folks. So your reputation gets added to that information to determine whether or not someone might believe that.
Michael Simeone: Yeah, and you're also helping anybody that you're sharing the content of right so there's always boosting or ranking going on on social media platforms, or on new sites. clicks are valuable. are valuable. Don't give that value away arbitrarily. or understand that, you know, when you do that, that there's that there's kind of cost associated with that. So let's wrap up. Shawn, do you have any kind of closing thoughts? You get the last comment before we really before we wrap this part of the conversation up.
Shawn Walker: I would say that, although he said, this is complicated, I mean, these are heuristics that we've discussed. So there's not an equation that we follow. These are just sort of tips of, you know, can I use these as shorthand to evaluate information. And it's good to try to do a little bit of this on everything that we bring in. But also recognize and honor the fact that this is just a really complex process. And that information is going to get through that might be problematic. And we can always go back and correct that. But we should also be pretty judicious in what we share.
Michael Simeone: All right. That's great. Shawn, thank you for joining today. So much has been a great conversation.
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