Combating Misinformation In The Age of Technology

Photo by visuals on Unsplash.

Can you please define misinformation?

Michelle Amazeen: Misinformation is the broad term for content that is inaccurate without taking into consideration the intent of the message sender. For example, people could share inaccurate information simply because they were honestly mistaken about something such as the date by which one needs to be registered to vote in an election. When inaccurate information is conveyed to deliberately mislead or deceive someone, that is called disinformation (a specific subset of misinformation). For instance, so-called “pregnancy crisis centers” that tell women that abortions cause mental illness or infertility are examples of disinformation because there is no scientific basis for these claims and the intent is to dissuade women from considering abortion as an option among their reproductive health choices.

What aspect of online misinformation does your research and scholarship focus on?

Gianluca Stringhini: While misinformation is an important threat facing our society, we still do not have a good understanding of how false information is created, how it spreads on social media, and of what type of misinformation is particularly effective and dangerous. In my research, I develop computational approaches to automatically trace and monitor misinformation. The techniques that my group has developed allow us to monitor several online platforms at once (e.g., Twitter, Reddit, 4chan, Gab) and trace misinformation content across it. This allows us to identify online communities that are particularly influential in spreading misinformation, and to pinpoint emerging misinformation narratives that are likely to go viral and should therefore be fact-checked and moderated.

Photo by Oğuzhan Akdoğan on Unsplash.

What role does social media play in spreading misinformation?

Michelle Amazeen: In the case of native advertising, social media helps amplify these disinformation efforts. While the Federal Trade Commission requires that advertising content must be clearly and conspicuously disclosed as such on news sites, research has shown that these disclosures disappear more than half the time when the content is shared on social media.

How is online misinformation impacting society at-large? What specific consequences and future implications do we need to be aware of?

Gianluca Stringhini: Online misinformation can affect how people act in the real world. Probably the most serious example of this has been the public reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, where false or unconfirmed cures against the disease were promoted on social media and were adopted by the public, often with nefarious consequences.

How can individuals better recognize and combat online misinformation?

Michelle Amazeen: My research has shown that people who are more news media literate are better able to identify disinformation efforts such as native advertising. Media literacy skills entail paying close attention to the source of news articles to see whether they are from legitimate publications and to see if there is a reporter byline indicating the author of the article. Even with a byline, one must carefully scan the webpage for a disclosure indicating that the content may be sponsored by a corporation, political party, or special interest group. Because the FTC does not require any standardization in disclosure language, it can be difficult to understand that words such as “partner content” mean advertising. Moreover, publishers often use disclosures that are not very prominent. By using small font sizes and colors that blend in with the background, the disclosures can be easy to miss.

Photo by Sean Robbins on Unsplash.

What policies and initiatives need to be put in place to address and prevent the spread of online misinformation on a societal level?

Gianluca Stringhini: The main issue with the current approach of debunking misinformation is that the process is reactive, and by the time a fact check about a certain narrative is issued, a large number of people have already been exposed to the misinformation. This problem is made even worse by the need for human analysis in fact checking information, which limits the number of fact checks that can be issued, allowing unconfirmed information to thrive on social media. In our research we are working on techniques to automatically identify social media posts that are related to existing fact checks. Our goal is to reduce the human effort needed to moderate these posts, enabling a quicker response.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
BU Experts

BU Experts


Cutting-edge research and commentary out of Boston University, home to Nobel laureates, Pulitzer winners and Guggenheim Scholars. Find an expert: