Fighting disinformation: The dangers of fake news in the age of mass information

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Wednesday, August 5, 2020
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Social media provides a megaphone for fake news like never before, researchers say the number of hyper-partisan or misinformation websites has doubled over the past six months.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- A group of Duke professors held a virtual roundtable Wednesday morning to discuss the danger of misinformation.

"I think there's no doubt that misinformation is becoming part of warfare of political polarization," said Sunshine Hillygus, the co-director of the Polarization Lab at Duke.

That polarization is found even in the response to COVID-19, where heated debates are found online over the efficacy of masks and potential treatment options.

Last week, US officials accused Russian intelligence officers of spreading disinformation about the pandemic through English-language websites.

"What's changed in the digital age is that the outliers, the fringe, has a megaphone they've never had before," said Bill Adair, a Duke professor and the creator of Politifact.

Another concern: the contraction of local news, which has created a vacuum for disinformation.

"In some communities, we've actually seen some outlets adopt the name of a defunct news organization," said Phil Napoli, a professor of Public Policy at Duke.

Napoli pointed to research which states the number of hyper-partisan or misinformation websites has doubled over the past six months.

"Today's news consumer has to do a lot more detective work in order to assure one's self you're being informed by legitimate news and information sources," said Napoli.

"There's more information than ever but people still want journalists to make sense of it for them. They still want us to hold power accountable. They just want to make sure we're not biased in doing it," added Adair.

Often, these stories are shared on social media sites that don't produce material but provide a platform for it.

"We're just in a moment of incredibly fractured politics and it's not clear to me that social media platforms can take more aggressive approaches on content without significantly alienating one side of the aisle or the other. As we saw at the tech CEO hearing last week, it was difficult to get through a hearing without conservatives talking almost exclusively about conservative bias and on the left people raising concerns about misinformation," said Matt Perault, the director at the Center on Science & Technology Policy at Duke. Prior to joining Duke, Perault served as a director of public policy at Facebook.

In extreme cases, some social media sites have chosen to remove content. More often, they focus on context; Facebook provides information on the source of shared articles while Twitter flags tweets that violate their policy.