How Do You Solve a Problem Like Misinformation?

Article Source: Science Advances, Vol. 8, Issue 50, 2021
Publication Date:
Time to Read: 2 minute read
Written By:

 Chris Coward

Chris Coward

 Emma Spiro

Emma Spiro

 Jevin West

Jevin West



Policymakers and the public struggle to navigate misinformation about topics like climate change, COVID, and politics. Disinformation campaigns and ideological convictions are harder to fight than ordinary mistaken beliefs.


Policy Relevance:

Online platforms can add warnings to misinformation, but some corrections backfire.


Key Takeaways:
  • Misinformation usually arises from an isolated incident or misunderstanding; by contrast, multiple actors orchestrate the spread of disinformation deliberately, to achieve strategic financial or political goals.
  • Fighting misinformation simply requires an observer to identify and correct the misleading message; this could be done by a machine learning system.
  • Fighting disinformation requires observers to understand the motivations and strategies of many different participants; diplomacy and economic sanctions might best address disinformation campaigns organized by foreign actors.
  • The Constitution of the United States does not allow the government to censor speech, even if it is misleading; however, the government can prosecute harmful conduct such as fraud, even if speech is involved.
  • Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act immunizes online platforms from liability for third-party speech; online platforms can address content such as coronavirus misinformation by adding warnings or deplatforming the content without being held liable as a “publisher.”
  • A user’s mistaken belief can be corrected by new facts, but users resist correction of convictions supported by ideology.
  • If platforms or officials distribute information about the COVID-19 vaccine's safety and efficacy early on, some who hesitate to accept the vaccine might change their minds, but those who refuse vaccines for religious or political reasons will continue to refuse the vaccine.
  • Some efforts to correct misinformation result in a "backfire effect;" research is needed to discover how to avoid methods of correction that make matters worse.



Kate Starbird

About Kate Starbird

Kate Starbird is an Associate Professor at the University of Washington (UW) in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering (HCDE). She is Co-founder and Director of the Center for an Informed Public (CIP) and the Director of the Emerging Capacities of Mass Participation (emCOMP) Laboratory, both at UW. She is also adjunct faculty in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering and the Information School, and a data science fellow at the eScience Institute.

M. Ryan Calo

About M. Ryan Calo

Ryan Calo is the Lane Powell and D. Wayne Gittinger Professor at the University of Washington School of Law. He is a founding co-director (with Batya Friedman and Tadayoshi Kohno) of the interdisciplinary UW Tech Policy Lab and the UW Center for an Informed Public (with Chris Coward, Emma Spiro, Kate Starbird, and Jevin West). Professor Calo holds adjunct appointments at the University of Washington Information School and the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering.