What should social media platforms do about the spread of fake news and other misinformation?
UW Information School Assistant Professor Emma Spiro and Human Centered Design & Engineering Assistant Professor Kate Starbird, an adjunct iSchool faculty member, tackle the topic in a Dec. 20 article for The Huffington Post.
The pair write that the phenomenon of fake news shares some similarities with online rumoring during crisis events, a related issue they have been studying in research funded by the National Science Foundation:
“In the crisis context, rumors — which can be thought of as stories of unverified truth value — are not necessarily intentional or malicious, but are often part of the natural sense-making process that occurs as people work to collectively process imperfect information. And indeed, sense-making rumors are one prominent type of online rumor in this context. But we also encounter intentionally false rumors that seem to be introduced into the space with the primary motivation of viral spread. And we see our share of conspiracy theories as well, including ones that share commonalities with the ‘fake news’ stories that were prominent during the 2016 election season — i.e., propagation by online sites and accounts that have a strong political agenda.”
The article goes into detail on several approaches for detecting and dealing with online misinformation. For detection, methods include machine learning, “self-correcting” among the crowd of social media users, and asking paid workers or volunteers to rate the credibility of posts.
The question of what to do about a fake news story after it has been detected is more complex.
“Should the system simply remove that information? Are we comfortable with that kind of censorship? We’d guess most of us would say no," they write. "We believe that one potential solution (and an important research direction) is to redesign these platforms to help people become better at discerning information credibility 'on their own' — through features that support both better decision-making in the moment and increased information literacy over the long term."