In what some have deemed a “post-truth” world, consumers of media in American society have become largely distrustful of what is true and who they ought to listen to. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that just 5% of social media users reported that they fully trusted the information they read online. This distrust has led to the rise of a wealth of outlandish conspiracy theories and many becoming less and less concerned with facts. This disillusionment has caused public officials and technology experts to become involved in fighting disinformation and paving the way for an online space that the public feels they can trust. In light of the role of disinformation in adding fuel to recent events like the Jan. 6th Capitol Insurrection and Russia’s current attacks on Ukraine, dis- and misinformation have been at the forefront of the national conversation. From April 6th to April 8th, the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics created a conference in partnership with The Atlantic that set out to determine the problems of disinformation and begin to develop potential solutions. Entitled “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy,” the conference’s speakers grappled with the problem of disinformation and its threat to democracy from the perspective of journalists, politicians, and computer scientists. Some of the talks presented at the conference include How Conspiracy Theories Capture the Mind, Taming the Wild, Wild Web, and How Powerful Are Algorithms Really?
Former President Barack Obama defined disinformation at the conference as “a systematic effort either to promote false information or to suppress true information for the purpose of political gain, financial gain, enhancing power, suppressing others, or targeting those you don’t like.” Alongside Mr. Obama, we heard a diversity of thinkers and leaders share their own definitions over the course of the conference, enriched by theories on its root causes and strategies to combat its spread in public discourse.
The conference started with a brief address by University of Chicago president President Paul Alivisatos, who shared his own experience with disinformation having come of age under the dictatorship of Georgios Papadopoulos in Greece. Next was Maria Ressa, who presented her experience with online threats as a Filipino-American journalist and her online news website Rappler, which has features like the “Rappler Mood Meter,” a tool that allows readers to assess what emotions an article makes them feel in order to encourage more rational reactions to online information. Using evidence from the Philippines' long struggle with online disinformation in its presidential politics, Ressa drew startling parallels to the state of US electoral politics today and its future directions.
Following Ressa, Atlantic staff writer Anne Applebaum sat down with David Axelrod to discuss the role of Russian misinformation. Applebaum currently lives in Poland and has studied Russia since the 1990s; more recently, she has started writing about the rise of authoritarianism in the West. She traced the history of Russian disinformation to the Soviet-era national intelligence strategies, in which officers took advantage of sympathetic journalists to plant stories in local newspapers, soon reaching a critical mass of self-referencing, a regenerative body of news reports that circulated around the globe. In her talk, Applebaum highlighted a surprising shift in pre and post-Soviet disinformation. Whereas the Soviet Union – seeing itself as the leader of a glorious, worldwide socialist movement – focused its messaging on portraying itself as an idealistic, forward-facing society, disinformation operatives from the Russian Federation functioned in the negative. Rarely did they try to convince outsiders of the benefits of the Russian model; rather, their focus was on undermining the values of democracy and liberalism closely associated with NATO, the EU, and the United States.
The final speaker of the first day was former President Barack Obama, interviewed by Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg. Their conversation began with the war in Ukraine, Obama describing the war as “a bracing reminder for democracies that had gotten flabby, confused, and feckless around the stakes of things that we tended to take for granted.” The former president also took the opportunity to defend his administration's inability to prevent Russia from annexing Crimea in 2014. According to him, Ukraine was a much more divided country, which had only recently removed a pro-Russian strongman, limiting his administration’s ability to support the nation against Russian aggression. Finally, Obama discussed how disinformation within the United States has left Americans divided and unwilling to understand each other. Regarding his trips to downstate Illinois and rural Iowa on various campaigns, “I could get a fair hearing. There were not a set of impenetrable assumptions about who I was. Now I could not.”
The next two days featured public figures, including U.S. Representative Lauren Underwood, former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, and author Cecilia Kang, each with their own expertise and ideas about how to improve the disinformation situation. Although many attendees had a background in politics or media, many speakers brought a technical lens to the issue, sharing expertise on the rise of algorithms, deep-fakes, and natural-language processing. The Gate had the opportunity to sit down with Jason Scott, the founder of textfiles.com. Scott took an interest in recovering the early internet message-boards of the 1980s after parking in conversations on these spaces himself, but, in the late 1990s, when he wanted to re-discover this primordial internet history all traces of these discussions had mysteriously vanished. He began uploading digital relics from this era, and with help from other people who gave him records of their downloads, Scott, a former systems administrator, found himself as archivist and historian of the early internet.
When asked what he feels politicians and journalists are getting wrong about disinformation, Scott described how journalists were “chasing down” stories by following what was popular, while failing to understand the negative sides of reporting in certain online spaces. He compared it to “ leaving your newsroom to go to a disco.” Describing Twitter, he said, “In the same place where we’re worried about BTS or whether a Kardashian has gotten married, we’re also supposed to find out how many war-dead there are and whether or not a dishonest approach to something is underfoot and needs to be investigated.”
Another theme was the importance of younger generations and their roles in online spaces. Regarding the youth’s role in disinformation, Kathleen Belew, a University of Chicago history professor, emphasized how a lack of civic and digital literacy education may be part of the cause of the disinformation problem the world is facing today, and how education may be used to combat it.
Although disinformation was tackled from a number of different perspectives, the role of social media emerged as a connecting theme. In many sessions, speakers teased out the shared algorithmic roots of corporate profit and dishonest dialogue on the internet. Some speakers, such as Jonah Goldberg and Ben Smith, blamed Fox News, particularly its opinion contributors, as purveyors of disinformation, an angle that remained less examined due to the conference’s focus on digital media. A handful of speakers independently referenced Wikipedia as a model of what a positive, truthful, and open online space could look like. But as executive editor of The Atlantic Adrienne LaFrance pointed out, Wikipedia has been relatively uncontroversial because people understood what an encyclopedia was, making it easy to imagine a digital encyclopedia, and also because it is a non-profit. Imagining what it looks like to construct a genuine, fair public space free from the profit business of social media algorithms online is going to require the radical power of imagination.
The third day of the conference focused largely on solutions to the problem of disinformation: how can individuals, governments, and technology companies come together from their different vantage points to work toward information accuracy? This may come in the form of institutional intervention, such as legislation on transparency and privacy, or even Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s antitrust bill, which seeks to protect competition and prevent monopolies, with the hope of creating better practices for online technology companies and better experiences for consumers. Many of the speakers also highlighted the dominant power of major technology companies and the need for reforms and regulations to the algorithms which harvest and control large amounts of sensitive data from individuals. Speakers like Maria Ressa and Sen. Klobuchar spoke of the need for technology “guard rails” that reign in the unchecked powers major social media companies have. Efforts such as these, many of the speakers highlighted, would require higher standards for social media companies that would hopefully foster a greater commitment to honesty online.
However, Kathleen Belew and Erin Simpson, Director of Technology Policy at American Progress, remind us that individual agency should not be discounted in the effort to prevent disinformation. In their talk, they emphasized the need for school boards and other leaders in education to confront disinformation at its roots with digital literacy programs. However, Belew described how groups accused of spreading disinformation also understand this and have made school boards one of their primary audiences. As such, she believes that combating disinformation through education will likely not be a straightforward endeavor.
Several of Friday’s speakers emphasized that efforts to curb disinformation and imagine better social media will likely be a lengthy process. Sen. Klobuchar phrased this as an ongoing revision process, in which more and more legislation is proposed as needed to cope with problems as they arise. Obama encouraged the public not to be a “society of manners” that “wilts” in the face of tough conversations and differing opinions, but rather a people committed to finding solutions together. In a moment of hope, Frances Haugen reminded us that similar crises have enveloped every past technological innovation and that we always managed to prevail. Perhaps this too is another problem that we must grapple with, but a problem that can be solved.
From day one to three, Russia’s role in the spread of disinformation was also under the microscope, particularly in the context of the war against Ukraine. Doubt from the American public is at the forefront of this issue, as only 6% of Americans say that they are confident in Putin doing the right thing for world affairs. Furthermore, according to a 2021 study by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, 95% of Americans say that misinformation is a problem when trying to research current events and issues, 81% say it is a major issue, and 91% lay at least some blame on social media companies.
Given Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin’s remarks that Russia is already a “familiar enemy” for the American people, it seems even more likely that the public would be interested in tackling Russian disinformation. However, when asked by moderator Jeffrey Goldberg whether disinformation should be fought with more disinformation on the part of the United States, Slotkin and former U.S. Representative Will Hurd, among other speakers, cautioned against this tactic when working against Russia. Though Slotkin referred to information as a “weapon to get Americans rallied around a cause,” she emphasized the necessity of maintaining a truthful narrative. She says that the American government and media need not rely on “deep fakes” or manipulated narratives, which inspire distrust; rather, the American people merely need to see what is occurring on the battlefield in order to gain an honest understanding of what is truly happening and not fall victim to propaganda narratives.
During his remarks, Obama discussed how young people had to “build up the habits, the muscles of democracy that have atrophied, and it will take some time.” In that light, perhaps the best metaphor for the disinformation conference is that of an individual who has made an enthusiastic, albeit belated, return to the gym. There is a great deal of enthusiasm and ideas about how to get better, but the journalistic establishment is still far away from finding out what routine will work for them and what their key exercises are going to be.
Stay tuned for the second article in The Gate’s three-part series on the disinformation conference, featuring some exclusive interviews with journalists on the future of their industry.
The image featured in this article was taken by the article's authors while reporting the story.