‘You can fake anything on the internet’: Professors host a day to teach WA students to fight disinformation

Sixth graders had 45 minutes to navigate their way through a maze of misinformation. It was an “escape room,” a kind of game where winning involved locating manipulated images and graphics, unreliable sources, and “deep fakes” — computer-generated video or audio in which people say things they never heard before. said.

In teams of Ballard High School students pored over materials pulled from manila envelopes, posted around the room, and called up on their computers. “Has anyone seen mismatched earrings?” one teenager asked, looking for a telltale clue in a strip of portraits. Other students looked at a video of an alleged scientist announcing the brilliant results of a study of a well-known wonder drug, and then another video with the same scientist claiming that the drug has turned out to be a dismal failure.

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

On Tuesday, these students from 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 MisinfoDayan annual event for middle and high school students that grew out of a very popular University of Washington class called “Calling bullshit in the age of Big Data.”

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

Jevin West, a UW professor who co-designed the original 2017 course and co-founded the university’s course two years later Center for an informed public, said he too was amazed at how Russian President Vladimir Putin has been able to fool large numbers of people in his country to the point where they don’t realize there is a war going on. “This is so troubling on so many levels,” West said.

It also breaks with the initial, idealistic vision 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 United States, people are fighting for the truth and lies related to COVID-19 and the hyper-partisan politics that has intensified under former President Donald Trump.

West and fellow UW professor Carl Bergstrom began planning their course ahead of these developments. Social media has been the driving force, West explained, making information — or misinformation — easy and cheap to share.

The Internet has spread new technologies and methods such as deep fakes and fake fact-checking. How ProPublica showed, such bogus fact-checking “exposes” erroneous data (such as a years-old video of a bombing raid in Ukraine) that was not circulated in the first place to sow doubt on real information (current missile attacks). And algorithms amplify the effect in our social circles, making us believe that there is consensus on questionable information.

After the class debuted and current events made its relevance clear, things moved quickly. The Center for an Informed Public launched and undertook pulsating research, such as allegations of electoral fraud. Liz Crouse, who was an undergraduate library student at the time and a former teacher and librarian, suggested creating curricula for middle and high school students.

Crouse said he knew many students weren’t being taught how to evaluate information online, mostly because some skills are new. You mentioned, for example, “lateral reading,” which involves opening multiple windows to check sources as you read.

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

Crouse became the coordinator of MisinfoDay at the Center for an Informed Public and also co-founded, with Ballard High’s Lee, Teachers for an informed publica group that meets monthly to discuss disinformation 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 tend to believe things that conform to what we already we believe to be true. The event has gone virtual and expanded with COVID.

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

Classes can do the escape room exercise — Lee did it with three of his classes last week in advance — and choose from seven pre-recorded video labs with titles including ‘How to Know if What You’ve Seen Online is Real’ and ‘Misinformation During a Global Pandemic’. While certainly partisan politics he infused misinformation about COVIDWest said she’s found much of this comes from “true and honest sense-making,” meaning people 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 titled “How to Talk to Friends or Family Who Believe Misinformation.” The Friends and Family Lab has a surprisingly sensitive approach. The first thing UW professor and center co-founder Kate Starbird said to ask herself is, “Is a relationship worth sacrificing to try to deal with it?” The answer may be no.

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

More workshop tips: find common ground before arriving at points of disagreement, ask candid questions to understand someone else’s beliefs rather than questioning and realizing you it could be wrong. “We are all vulnerable to the spread of 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 is too much involvement, such as emotions and connections with others who hold the same beliefs. Jalbert said people can also simply forget a fact. It’s best, he said, to explain how disinformation spreads so people have more context to hold on to.

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

And so there’s a fine line he and his colleagues try to walk, 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 that far away… I think we can educate our students to a place where they can operate in this environment.”