University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce is right: The insidious creep of misinformation is a serious threat to American democracy.
She made her comments Tuesday as the UW and Washington State University launched the new Center for an Informed Public. With $5 million in funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, this partnership has potential to be an invaluable aid in navigating an increasingly skewed news landscape.
The political disruption Russian hackers sowed in the 2016 election — fake Facebook groups, tweets impersonating activists and other chicanery — was the opening salvo of a growing conflict. As access to high-end technology proliferates in households around the globe, bad-actor nations and interests will have more opportunities to mess with American minds. Facebook groups populated with fake neighbors stirring divisiveness are only a small aspect of the quagmire.
The rapid evolution of “deepfake” videos shows how far misinformation has gone. These videos animate familiar faces to “speak” words the real people never said. This threatens our ability to have shared accepted facts across society. A skeptic’s doubts that the reality-mimicking frontier has been reached can be dashed with just a few rounds of clicking through whichfaceisreal.com. The “uncanny valley” of creepy not-quite-exact similarity in fake faces is gone. With this development, anything can be falsified for any audience.
Even today, top officials including President Donald Trump repeat a conspiracy theory of dubious origin blaming 2016 election interference on Ukrainian agents — despite ample evidence Russia manipulated the American public.
The Center for an Informed Public will help rebalance a world drowning in cries of “fake news” responses to even journalism of flawless credibility.
The Center’s task is as difficult as getting a gullible relative to stop posting hoaxes to Facebook. Always-online smartphones, tablets and laptops have spread across the landscape concurrently with the crumbling of institutions of the free press. This diminished news ecosystem, coupled with the capacity of social media, blogs and message boards to make any user into a publisher, created an opening to shove in misinformation.
In decades past, a home could receive three network news broadcasts and two daily newspapers a day, each a professionally curated information provider. The modern Wild West internet and media landscape risks trustworthy sources being drowned out by purveyors of rumors or more sinister misinformation.
Every citizen, philanthropist and level of government should support the Center for an Informed Public’s mission. The future of the free press depends on the American public embracing how essential journalism is to the nation’s governance and society. The Center for an Informed Public is built for this much-needed public-education service.