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UW scores $5 million for new center studying fake news, misinformation

A fake news story is positioned near ads from major global corporations on The Red Elephants website. Experts say it’s not so easy for brands to make sure they don’t end up on websites that publish false stories. (The Red Elephants via AP)

You may recognize the name of University of Washington Professor Jevin West — he became famous for co-founding a course named “Calling Bull**t.” The course intended to give students the tools to identify phooey news stories or bogus studies often wrapped in numbers and statistics.

That course has been taken up a notch with a $5 million investment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It will help create a new Center for an Informed Public. West will be the center’s first director and joined Seattle’s Morning News to discuss what the new center aims to accomplish.

“This is going to the university to set up a center that will involve lots of researchers on campus and outside of campus as well. It’s meant to sort of bring policymakers and industry leaders together, though especially in the technology areas that are sort of creating this great technology, but also the technology that’s causing a lot of the problems,” he said.

UW officially adopts course fighting fake news

“It’s hard to believe a lot of what we read online on social media — not just social media — but in the news and in things that we hear in the grocery store or wherever,” he said. “So it’s this idea that it’s so easy to create fake news — let’s call it fake news or misinformation — and it’s so easy to spread it. I would argue that we’re seeing higher density now than maybe we did 20 years ago. We have to deal with that.”

The center is set to open in the fall of 2019 at the UW Information School, and its credo is to “resist strategic misinformation, promote an informed society, and strengthen democratic discourse,” according to UW.

“We, as a research institution, feel that since we have a public platform where we’re as open and transparent as possible we can engage the public in ways that maybe the industry or even the government could not,” he said. “The core aspect of this center will be research with also an emphasis on translating it to public education to work that’s being done in libraries and in journalism arenas.”

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Additional areas of exploration will include more stringent forms of authentication on the internet, exploring issues of anonymity online, creating software that will alert people to deep fakes (in which someone’s image and voice is faked), and numerous other online defensive tools.

Beyond that, West hopes to establish a center that is non-partisan and involves people outside of academia and all sorts of disciplines.

“We are looking to put people on our advisory board that sort of represent different stakeholders across the State of Washington and across the Puget Sound area, that are not just from the academic circles and not just from industry and government,” he said. “We want people from across the political aisles, across different groups from the young and old. We’re trying to figure out how to have this be a place that truly represents all.”

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