UW professor discusses dangers, motives of fake news

President elect Donald Trump recently fired the son of Michael T. Flynn, his pick for national security advisor, because of fake news.

Michael G. Flynn had been working on Mr. Trump's transition team, but was let go after he shared multiple tweets that wrongly accused Hillary Clinton of running a sex trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant.

The fake news story is known as "pizza-gate."

University of Washington Assistant Professor Kate Starbird has studied fake news for years and told KIRO 7 it’s still not known “exactly who and how these things are spreading.”

Starbird teaches and studies human-centered Design and engineering at the UW in Seattle, which includes research on social media and the spread of fake news, also called “alternative narratives.”

Starbird believes people who create and spread false information are likely to share messages they already agree with instead of expanding their thinking to include the sometimes-differing opinions of others, a practice she calls “dangerous.”

“There’s a danger of becoming profoundly disinformed,” she told KIRO 7 from her computer lab in Sieg Hall on Wednesday.

There’s “a danger of becoming more divided as a society as we get further into our own realities, and I think there’s another danger of us just becoming so cynical about the information we see.”

Two of Starbird's students have been researching the motives of those who disseminate fake news and found those who create misinformation often feel powerless.

Alternative narrative creators represent “so many various communities that are using a lot of these stories to feed into their own agendas,” according to UW senior Leo Stewart.

What surprised Stewart and UW graduate student Conrad Nied about their research results was the diversity of the fake news posters who “are from the political right in the U.S. from the political left in the U.S.” according to Nied.  “We see these clusters that are just as diverse as the rest of Twitter, as the rest of us.”

Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg has said he is looking into creating possible algorithms to flag hoaxes and fake news.

However, UW graduate student Ahmer Arif believes a technological fix is only part of the solution.

According to Arif, human behavior will also have to adapt to new mediums, and people will have to learn to recognize fake news from fact.  “It can be very hard to know in the moment, we all make mistakes, and that’s fine,” he said.  “What’s important is how we learn from those mistakes.”

Starbird and her students suggest before sharing online what could be a fake news story, people should do some research.

If they later learn what they’ve shared is false, they should correct it online as soon as possible.

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