How Do We Stop the Groundswell of Misinformation?

Joel Finkelstein, Director and Co-Founder of the Network Contagion Research Institute

Misinformation isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been a global issue for hundreds of years, which we first saw with the rise of the printing press in the 1400s. This historic development changed the way we disseminate information forever. It gave rise to greater freedom of information, but it also gave rise to bad actors who manipulated this practice for their own benefit.

So, what’s different today? Nothing. Except for the medium of how this practice has spread. Technology. Today, with a click of a button, we are all producers, thought leaders and publishers. We can share our thoughts and opinions with thousands and even millions of people from around the world, instantly. Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly support the freedom of speech, as I discussed with Joe DosSantos during the latest episode of Data Brilliant. Stopping the spread of misinformation isn’t about censorship. In fact, censorship is only going to make the problem worse. It’s about transparency. It’s about telling the truth. And the truth, unfortunately, as I told Joe, has become a bit of an acquired taste.

Stopping the Confusion Around the Spread of Misinformation

The worrying part is, is that many people don’t even realize they’re spreading misinformation or even disinformation. There’s a small minority of hostile actors who are creating falsehoods and purposefully spreading virtual deception. The issue gets heightened when people spread these falsehoods, not understanding that they’re not the truth.

That’s where the need for education comes in. The need for greater literacy and, vitally, data literacy around the issue.

As Joe mentioned during our discussion, there are now classes that are being taught at Stanford University to teach students about the very nature of dissemination and understanding how to do your research – to check the data and the facts – and spot these lies.

But this isn’t enough.

Teaching Data Literacy to the Masses

Data literacy needs to be taught in schools. We need to educate children, from a young age, that the influencer they’re following on TikTok isn’t telling them the entire truth. That the memes they’re seeing and sharing on Facebook aren’t grounded in reliable data and fact. If we don’t educate people and empower them to improve their critical thinking skills, question and challenge the information they’re given so they can understand when a meme, article or video isn’t telling them the truth, then how can we expect to ever hope to get this under control?

Because it is out of control. At the NCRI, we track vast amounts of data from across the web and social networks every single day. We use machine learning and natural language processing to rapidly contextualize this data and spot trends. We identify when virtual deception is taking place and disinformation is spreading, and we need to identify when potential mass uprisings – such as the ones we saw on Capitol Hill – are spreading across the internet. And, let me tell you now, the issue is worse than you can imagine.

As I said to Joe during our discussion, you have to think of the NCRI like we’re monitoring the weather. We use data analysis to forecast what the next trends will be and contextualize them so we can tell social networking platforms, governments, organizations and lawmakers where it's going to be raining in real-time. This ability to make sense of online manipulation and disinformation rapidly is ultimately the key to control for any kind of chaotic environment.

But we cannot fight this alone. We need to work with individuals, organizations and governments to do so.

The ecosystem for disinformation has arguably never been more powerful. We have to address it. We have to drive data literacy; we have to drive trust. And that trust will come from transparency, discussion and confrontation.

We have to use data to base our information in fact. To get rid of the lies and expose the truth.

Joel Finkelstein, Director of the @ncri_io is on the next episode of #DataBrilliant highlighting why without transparency, trust & #data literacy we don’t stand a chance against the spread of misinformation


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