Combating Fake News: An Agenda for Research and Action

February 17, 2017

The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and Northeastern University convened a group of top thought-leaders on February 17-18, 2017 in a conference to address how to combat fake news. The summit, entitled “Combating Fake News: An Agenda for Research and Action,” featured a diverse group of prominent stakeholders from technology, academia, media and philanthropy. Cass Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School, gave the keynote address. Below are some highlights from the conversations.

The psychology of fake news: How do people determine what information to attend to, and what to believe? How does fake news fit into this picture?

“Exposure to misinformation has long term effects even when it’s corrected. Mostly we hear about fake news from people correcting it — but any repetition is bad repetition…misinformation regarding policy is particularly important because it undermines our trust in the most basic institutions of society.” – Emily Thorson, Boston College

“People overestimate how much they know about things because in modern society, we rely on the knowledge of others. The implications are that facts/education aren’t the most valued traits, since people are often not using reasoning skills. Therefore, we need to address this at a social level: how we actually respond is based on the shared narrative we get from our community, and this includes social signaling…to change opinions on a topic, we need to change those social norms.” – Steven Sloman, Brown University

“People decide what to believe based on the credibility of the source and the information. A proliferation of digital sources, murky authorship, and the ease of digital manipulation have all made it much more difficult to determine if a source is credible. This uncertainty encourages heuristics and magnifies known biases.” – Miriam Metzger, UC Santa Barbara


How fake news spreads:
How does information spread amongst people in the current news ecosystem? How is this driven by our social ties, by social media platforms, and by “traditional” media? What lessons can be learned from history?

“With a large load for information and not enough attention, a system is incapable of discriminating information based on quality…low quality information goes viral just as much as good information.” – Filippo Menczer, Indiana University

“Fake news can have lasting power…and people believe in it for three reasons – fear, distance and endorsement from authority figures.” – Michael
 Schudson, Columbia University

“Disinformation, rather than fake news, is the systemic ill we should concentrate on. How can we hold the Executive and Legislative branches of our government accountable when shared modes of asserting facts are lost?” – Yochai Benkler, Harvard University


Keynote Speaker: Cass Sunstein, Robert Walmsley University Professor, Harvard University Law School

People are asymmetrical updaters in general (e.g. strong climate change believers and weak climate change believers) but exceptions do exist (e.g. “moderate” climate change believers).

Group polarization and biased assimilation are very important. If you want to know how a judge will vote on a three person panel, you’ll often do a lot better by asking “were the others Republican or Democrat?” than “was this judge a Republican or a Democrat?”


Responses by public and private institutions:
What role is there for public institutions (e.g., local, state and federal government) and private actors

(e.g., social media companies, scholars, NGOs, activists) to combat fake news and its harmful effects?

“Impartiality is different than fairness or objectivity…it is a criterion that actively seeks out and reports all viewpoints and represents those that express them as humans rather than anthropological studies.” – Helen Boaden, Harvard University

“We need to accept that fake news is an asymmetrical problem, affecting different parts of the political spectrum more than others. Journalists and storytellers should: leverage identity, balance fluency and disfluency, make truth louder and correct metaphors. Citizens should use a truth ‘DDOS,’ (i.e., shame distributor nodes into not sharing misinformation).” – Eli Pariser, Upworthy

“We should first open up data on social media users and news and then focus on solutions that improve the market for news. What we really need is large-scale data and the ability to run experiments. To do this, we need to create incentives that open up research at places like Facebook.” – David Rothschild, Microsoft Research

“There is a spectrum with journalists who are highly media literate and seeking out truth vs. people actively seeking out / putting in bad information. In the middle of the spectrum, people care about truth but are busy with other things and not actively seeking out news. The platforms impact what that middle looks like. Social networks are no longer geographically constrained. Individuals can go find like-minded people on Facebook to consume news.”  – Adam Sharp, Sharp Things LLC