UW professor: ‘No easy solution’ to solving fake news on social media

Dec 27, 2019, 10:47 AM | Updated: 10:54 am
fact-checking, fake news...
Fake news continues to proliferate. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

University of Washington professor — and former Seattle Storm player — Kate Starbird has made it her mission to study and discern so-called “fake news,” but even she finds it difficult to suss out a simple fix to help the average person sort fact from fiction.

UW professor, former Storm player on how lies are spread on social media

“Here’s the thing: There’s no easy solution,” Starbird told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “We’re used to instant gratification — we want to retweet, or repost, or ‘like’ something right away. In reality, it actually does take some time to verify these things are true.”

That uncertainty is precisely the goal of people sowing the seeds of fake news across the internet, from Russian bots, to sensationalist conspiracy theorists.

“One of the things that’s the goal of this information is not to convince you of anything — it’s to erode your trust in information,” Starbird pointed out.

Some of these people are simply seeking to capitalize on a financial opportunity, spreading conspiracy theories to cash in on ad money. Others, though, are what Professor Starbird describes as “true believers.”

A third subset of disinformation peddlers seeks to further a political agenda, oftentimes buoyed by thousands of fake Twitter accounts.

“We often see networks of Twitter accounts that aren’t actually real people,” described Starbird. “They’re run by computer programs, and one person operates the whole computer program.”

“These automated accounts retweet and amplify the messages of different people, different kinds of political propaganda,” she continued. “But we see them active in the conspiracy theory space a lot, where one person will Tweet about an event being a hoax, and then hundreds of bots will automatically retweet it. So it looks like there’s hundreds of people engaging in it, when really, it’s much smaller.”

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And while it can be tough to find a dependable way to avoid being influenced by this disinformation, Starbird recommends simply doing your due diligence when presented with something suspicious.

“I think it’s up to all of us to go check the credentials of these things.”

Listen to the Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5-9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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UW professor: ‘No easy solution’ to solving fake news on social media