As misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines is spiking, the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public (CIP) is gearing up its efforts to document, understand and combat the rampant spread of unfounded claims across social media platforms.
The center announced today that it has received $2.25 million from a grant totaling $3 million from the National Science Foundation. Kate Starbird (UW Human Centered Design and Engineering Associate Professor) will direct the project. She said that money will be used “to develop and evaluate ‘rapid responses’ methods for studying and communication about disinformation.”
This new initiative will be launched in October with support from Stanford University.
Similar issues have been addressed by the CIP. The UW was part of a multi-university team created in the summer of 2020 called the Election Integrity Partnership that monitored and shared in real time mis- and disinformation about the November election that was being spread on social media.
The CIP launched in 2019 and facilitates collaboration between professors in fields including engineering, law, biology and other areas to examine the powerful role that Facebook, Twitter and other platforms play in communication worldwide.
Joseph Bak-Coleman, CIP’s lead author, wrote a June paper calling for the elevation of the study of “collective behaviour” — that is how we collect and share information — to the urgency of a crisis discipline. The research sought to draw attention to the enormous challenges presented by misinformation networks and communications networks. The paper was published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Global problems require international communication. If we don’t communicate, then it’s impossible to solve global warming. He said that it was great to have the tools available for information spreading globally. They don’t appear to be optimal for this purpose, despite the fact that they are currently being constructed and utilized. They are optimized to generate revenue.
Social media has been a hotbed of confusion in the wake of national elections, climate crisis, and pandemic. As vaccination rates lag and the Delta variant of COVID surges, President Biden last month accused Facebook of “killing people” for failing to effectively curb the spread of untruths about vaccines.
Biden changed his mind later, however there is widespread support for more rigorous regulation of the platforms. Multi-billion dollar companies have not had much success with inaccurate content self-policing.
Bak-Coleman is a postdoctoral research fellow. “It seems almost absurd to suggest that it’s possible just to let things go, and an invisible hand will guide society toward the happiest and healthiest future,” she said.
Bak-Coleman was available for an interview regarding his latest publication. These answers have been edited to be more concise and clear.
GeekWire: You have a background in biology, and see similarities between people who use social media and their biological systems. Could you please explain?
Bak-Coleman:My work focuses on collective behavior. I started out working with fish schools, but now it is applicable to all species. One thing we continue to see is the ability of animals to do magical or magical acts, such as flocks of birds choosing where to go, fish avoidance predators, or swarming unison. It’s simple to establish local rules and the network structure that allows for [collective behavior].
The most disturbing example is the ants that follow pheromone tracks. Their rule is: If I feel a scent of pheromones, I will stay on them. This causes me to spread it as well. They can end up in a circular motion, where all the ants are going around in circles until their bodies starve and then die. This is called “ant death spirals” or “ant mills”.
This was the exact time I learned about it, as well as the 2016 election. For many Americans this was an alarming sign that social media was doing some good. All of this was made possible by the fact that I also taught conservation biology classes at the time.
GW: How can we make social media more responsible?
Bak-Coleman:My most positive part of me hopes that companies will realize this eventually, as regulators and the public alike. Then we need to develop sustainable business models.
This is my best self. That’s not what I expect to see with all companies. Facebook clearly shows that this is not where they want to go.
It could come down to regulators realizing this chaotic social system is just not a good idea for governance. The general public may not like the idea that large corporations regulate society and the way we interact. Scientists may find clever ways to show how these technologies are causing harm. All of these things will hopefully lead to greater transparency. Then transparency can be used to draw more attention and create feedback.
GW: What has the role of social media in avoiding regulation?
Bak-Coleman:The one thing that the fossil fuel industry did, as well as the Sackler family of opioid companies with their tobacco products, was to try and create uncertainty. This is their aim — to create enough uncertainty and doubt in order to get rid of regulations.
Then you place little patches of nicotine on the cigarettes. A filter is placed on cigarettes to make sure it’s safe. The companies seem to be following the exact same strategy, I believe.
The July 17, 2017 Facebook press release was full of half-baked statistics. It’s hard to believe that 85% of Facebook users are interested in vaccines.
GW: What are you calling for? Evidence-based stewardship of communications networks. What is that?
Bak-Coleman:We are urging scientists to think about the systems and what it does well. Then we can make educated decisions for the public as well as regulators about social systems.
Scientists still don’t know the fundamental elements of how to build a communication network that works at scale and is profitable for companies. We need to find out these things.
Far from advocating technocracy and elite-driven social networks, we are not advocating them. Our goal is to help society make informed decisions about the structure of social media.
GW: If social media are no longer the primary source of misinformation, what implications does this have for society?
Bak-Coleman:This problem can be solved, and then many other problems will also be resolved. It shouldn’t take long to get leaders elected who advocate basic public health policies if we have an information system that is healthy. People should be able to receive safe, healthy and effective vaccinations.
So, while it’s a difficult problem, it’s not impossible to solve. However, a large part of why climate change [is so hard] to respond to is that we don’t fully understand collective behavior, and this is what we are trying to do.
Although it is an urgent problem, we have the potential to make significant progress. It might not all be about creating utopia. But it can be as simple as changing recommendation algorithms to ensure more people are vaccinated. Or it could also be stopping radicalization or genocide.
Even though the large healthy ecosystem may be far away, we can still make tangible progress.
Publiated at Mon, 16 August 2021 03:21:21 +0000