Drowning in Disinformation

Prof. Chris Wiggins collaborates on a white paper issued by CRA’s Computing Community Consortium addressing how we can stop the deluge of disinformation flooding the internet and social media



This story is based on a press release by the Computing Research Association’s Computing Community Consortium (CCC), the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), Arizona State University (ASU), University of Colorado, and Columbia Engineering.

Columbia Engineering media contact:
Holly Evarts, 212-854-3206, holly.evarts@columbia.edu.

Prof. Chris Wiggins.

The use and spread of disinformation—false or misleading information intended to deceive people—is being amplified and accelerated at an alarming rate on the internet via social media.

Within the U.S., this has quickly eroded trust in institutions that serve as the bedrocks of our society, including science, the media, and government, to the point that we can’t even agree on basic facts.

In a white paper for the Computing Research Association’s (CRA) Computing Community Consortium (CCC), researchers from Columbia University, the Santa Fe Institute, the University of Colorado, and Arizona State University outline steps to begin dealing with the disinformation problem.

“Disinformation has become a major problem not just across this country but around the world,” says co-author Chris Wiggins, an associate professor of applied mathematics at Columbia Engineering and the Chief Data Scientist at The New York Times. “We think an interdisciplinary approach is critical to restoring a trustworthy information ecosystem.”

Disinformation damages society by creating confusion and eroding trust in traditionally trusted institutions. One obvious example of disinformation today is the way COVID-19 has been called a “hoax,” which has resulted in reduced adoptions of precautions necessary to contain its spread.

“Within the past few months, we’ve seen other large-scale disinformation about elections and the democratic process in terms of the validity, legality and security of mail-in ballots, fraudulent voting, rigged elections, dead people voting, supercomputers changing votes, etc.,” says co-author Joshua Garland, an Applied Complexity Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute. “And there are many other examples surrounding migrants, vaccines, and climate change.”

Disinformation is an existential threat to democracy and society, points out Elizabeth Bradley, a professor of computer science at the University of Colorado.

“We technologists created many of the tools being used by disinformation creators and circulators—the internet, social media, etc.—and it’s incumbent upon us to think about solutions,” Bradley says.

One of CRA’s goals is to explore how computing research can help address national priorities. “Disinformation and the poisoned information environment we’re all swimming in needs to be a national priority,” says Nadya Bliss, executive director of the Global Security Initiative at Arizona State University.

To address disinformation, the researchers emphasize that both supply and demand must be addressed. “On the supply side, we need to develop better methods for detecting and isolating or at least mitigating disinformation before it spreads,” explains Bliss. “On the demand side, we need improved efforts to educate the citizenry so people are less susceptible to believing and spreading disinformation.”

Purveyors of disinformation are excellent at manipulating human emotions—they create content that is meant to seem believable while triggering an emotional response. As an individual, the best thing you can do to stop the spread of disinformation is to be sure you aren’t part of the problem. If you’re online and see a post that outrages you, Bliss cautions to take a moment to think before sharing it.

The researchers say the challenge of combating disinformation requires a comprehensive response that goes far beyond computing research, and includes education, psychology, journalism, and other disciplines.

“There's a tremendous need to understand how data empowered algorithms are impacting our reality and the offline world,” says Wiggins. “Just like for any other complex system, addressing this will require interacting with the system—here the information ecosystem—in a way that respects ethical concerns for rights, harms, and justice.”

“Our white paper outlines a clear agenda for research on the topic that could help inform a national response driven by the public and private sectors together,” says Bliss.