Misinformation drives Webster professor to action


Professor Julie Smith hates misinformation and disinformation. She’s dedicated her career to educating people on how to combat the spread of “fake news.”

With the presidential election on the horizon, 82% of Americans are concerned about the influence fake news could have on it, according to the Pew Research Center. How can the average American see through this fog of fake news? Julie Smith, a media literacy professor at Webster University, has dedicated her career to this cause. 

“I don’t like people thinking that we’re gullible. I don’t like people thinking that we’re sheep,” Smith said. “With all of the media we are consuming constantly, we need to recognize the patterns, the motives and the techniques that they use to make us believe things that aren’t true. It makes me crazy.”

The two types of false information are misinformation, which is accidental, and disinformation, which is intentional. One source can spout disinformation on social media and be shared over and over again by people who don’t know it is false. This is how misinformation spreads. However, people are now unsure about what is considered fake news. 

Webster University political science professor Gwyneth Williams brings a political perspective. 

“In 2016, people started talking about fake news. It meant things that looked like real news reports but were totally made up. Then, President Trump began to talk a lot about fake news. He would label anything negative that was reported about him as fake news,” Williams said. “As a result, many of his supporters don’t believe anything that’s written in credible news sources. They don’t look at them, either.”

Williams said liberals also fall into this distrust of mainstream media. 

“When anyone can throw anything up there and say it’s the truth, people don’t believe credible news sources. They think there’s no difference, or they don’t even know what a credible news source is,” Williams said. “People are simultaneously skeptical but that leaves them open to being then totally gullible.”

Both Smith and Williams note the 2016 election was affected by fake news. 

“If you look up the role that Macedonian teenagers played in the 2016 election, they were creating all of these fake sites and writing clickbait headlines,” Smith said. “People were falling for those clickbait headlines and going to their websites. Because of that, they were making lots of money.”

Motives for spreading false information include making a profit and influencing the public. 

“I think some people do it for sport to kind of ‘trick’ the other [political] side. I think some people just like to watch the world burn,” Smith said. “I think some people just really like to stir things up. They have just as much access to Twitter as I do, so we have to be careful.”

Algorithms on social media and search engines also contribute to the spread of misinformation. Looking things up with a particular political leaning on Google or Facebook will result in that platform showing you more and more content that aligns with that belief.

“Any predispositions that people have get completely reinforced by the mirage of other sources that come to them,” Williams said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people never look at the news sources that we know to be the most credible news sources.”

This creates a polarizing effect. People do not all consume the same news, which creates the misconception that their own personal belief is the popular one.

“The algorithms push us to the fringes because the point of the website is to keep us on there longer,” Smith said. “The result of that is that we are more separated than ever. We’re all consuming our own little tiny micro-casted bit of information. I think that we are living in a time where people are more interested in what they believe than what is true.” 

This could have negative connotations for what the future of American politics looks like.

“I do think one effect on presidential politics is that to some extent, is that it doesn’t matter what things come to light or what things are known about a political figure,” Williams said. “If people don’t read those things, if their news feeds aren’t covering those things or say it’s a lie, then it doesn’t matter. They aren’t influenced by things a leader does.”   

There are some ways to protect yourself from falling for false information online. If it triggers a strong emotional response, it should be checked for accuracy. Smith urges people to always check the source, recognize clickbait headlines, verify the origin of the photo that was used with a Google reverse image search and to not share it until you verify it. 

“There is a way but there also has to be a will. People have to be willing to step outside their comfort zone and consume information that might make them uncomfortable,” Smith said. “Recognize that even if you like a message, it might still be inaccurate.”

Another good way to stay informed is to get your news from journalistic news sources, not social media platforms. Williams recommends Associated Press, Reuters, New York Times and Wall Street Journal as credible news sources. 

“You can have a presumption when a story comes from one of these major credible news sources that it’s not a lie,” Williams said. “I’m not talking about the editorial pages, I’m talking about the news.”

Julie Smith and Megan Lynch from KMOX are hosting a virtual meeting in honor of Media Literacy week from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Oct. 26. They will discuss misinformation in the news and how to verify if online information is true. To register for this free event, go to http://alumni.webster.edu/medialitwk.

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